American Indians Set National Agenda

The National Congress of American Indians is convening its annual conference to set the agenda for the coming year, and ahead of a Tribal Nation Summit at the White House next month. Host Michel Martin speaks with National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel and Juana Mejal Dixon, the group's first vice president.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of African Art features everything from traditional masks to jewelry to fantasy coffins. You have to stay tuned to find out just what that's about, when we hear from museum director Johnetta Cole in a few minutes.

But first, just as new members of the U.S. Congress are preparing their legislative wish lists, Indian Country is setting its agenda for the coming year. That's been happening this week at a gathering in Albuquerque of the oldest and largest organization representing American Indians and Alaskan natives. Here to talk more about that is Jefferson Keel. He is president of the National Congress of American Indians. He's also lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Also with us is Juana Mejal Dixon. She's vice president of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Pauma Tribe of Southern California. I welcome you both and thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JEFFERSON KEEL (President, National Congress of American Indians): Thank you for having us. We're excited to be here.

Ms. JUANA MEJAL DIXON (Vice President, National Congress of American Indians): Thank you for having me here.

MARTIN: President Keel, I wanted to ask what some of the priorities are for the coming year. Now, last year's wish list was, in part, fulfilled when President Obama held a Tribal Nation Summit at the White House. This was, as I understand it, the largest meeting of tribal leaders that had ever been held, you know, at the White House. And two of the key items discussed there were fulfilled: One was the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and one was the Tribal Law and Order Act. So, what about this coming year? What are some of the priorities that you talked about?

Mr. KEEL: Well, we certainly want and expect to meet with President Obama in December in Washington again. We want to sustain the momentum that we've created over the past year. That you're absolutely correct; the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act were significant pieces of legislation that have been appreciated since last year. But we still have so many things to do. We want to make sure that in the budget cycle that none of the Indian programs are restricted or we lose any momentum.

And we also want to look at some other pieces of legislation. The Cobell case needs to be settled this year. It needs to be finalized and Congress needs to approve that.

MARTIN: And that is, for those who aren't aware - we've covered that case. But for those who don't remember, the Cobell case is?

Mr. KEEL: It is a suit that was brought against - by Elouise Cobell. And it's a federal mismanagement case by the Interior, and all of those individual Indians who had trust issues with the federal government. And a settlement was reached; however, Congress has not approved the appropriation of the funds yet. And that's what we really need to accomplish.

MARTIN: And Vice President Mejal Dixon, could you talk a little bit more about some of the issues related to security for women that have gotten a lot of attention in recent years? Were those discussed?

Ms. MEJAL DIXON: Yes, absolutely. You know, the Tribal Law and Order Act is a product on very long, long legacy of work that was grassroots level. But what was very clear is the fact that we haven't made prosecutorial changes enough that we can't seem to take the perpetrator all the way to the end and prosecute. And the TLO, with some of its provision, helps that. We had encroachment from so many non-Indian perpetrators that we are now - even had a discussion last night with the Department of Justice about serial rapists who know that they can come on to Indian Country, get away with this, without anybody looking at them.

An example of that is that you have two police officers in Crow Country over a million acre of land mass. And it takes them all day and all night to just take the circuit around their tribal territories. So with the TLOA coming through, you're going to have more tribal police brought in, as well as a marrying of codes and the ability to prosecute on a level that's equity to the crime. It needs to definitely improve more; doing three years for a heinous crime is really not a lot, but it's a beginning.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the priorities of the 565 American Indian and native Alaskan tribes with Jefferson Keel and Juana Mejal Dixon, the president and vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. They're both joining us from a major gathering of tribes in Albuquerque.

And do you mind, Vice President Mejal Dixon, while we're talking with you, we also covered recently the story of Linda Lovejoy. She was running for the second time, was a finalist in the race for president of the Navaho Nation. She was defeated again after she was leading in the polls in the run-up to the final vote. And I did want to ask, if you don't mind my asking, about - do you feel that this says something about the state of view of women in leadership roles in Indian Country, since you are yourself in a leadership role? Do you think that this signals something?

Ms. MEJAL DIXON: No. Our politics in Indian Country are not like that. We come from systems that are embracing both the male and female side. We certainly have our traditional backings of the patrilineal, matrilineal systems. But what we have learned, which is actually opposite of what you're describing, is that even though I come from a matriarchal system, it's not necessary in the politics of electing someone, that it would be a woman. But I am a traditional leader, which means I am inside the system of the matriarch.

But I wouldn't run for the politics side because I'm on the traditional side. But, no, it isn't an issue for us in Indian Country, male or female. We're actually very, I would say, we're very equitable.

MARTIN: Okay. President Keel, I did want to ask, before we let you go, you know, there's obviously the midterm elections were held for the other Congress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The other Congress earlier this month and, you know, huge change coming to Washington as a consequence. The House of Representatives going back into, you know, Republicans hands. And, also, in many state legislatures around the country that will be led by Republicans. And I did want to ask whether you feel that this leadership change in Washington will affect the way the issues that Indian Country is bringing to Washington will be viewed. Do you see a change for you?

Mr. KEEL: I really don't. I just have to say that the federal trust responsibility for Indian Country is a nonpartisan issue. We enjoy a unique status with the federal government. And we have friends on both sides of the aisle. And so it's an opportunity for us to go to Washington. And we have people every day walking the halls of Congress in the U.S. Capitol making sure that our issues are very well communicated to all of those members of Congress regardless of the party, so that they can understand what our issues are and continue to assist us in moving our agendas forward.

MARTIN: And, finally, Mr. President, you're having another meeting with President Obama. So, are there top priorities for that meeting that you can share with us?

Mr. KEEL: As a matter of fact, we are now attempting to shape some of the issues so that we can get a clear picture of all of those issues that we want to present to the president. This is a government to government - an historic meeting with the president. And it's very important that every tribal leader is able to express his or her specific questions in their request and needs directly to the president. We did have a meeting yesterday so that we could strategize, not just in terms of how we want to do it, but to specific topics themselves.

MARTIN: Jefferson Keel is president of the National Congress of American Indians and lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. Juana Mejal Dixon is vice president of the National Congress of American Indians. She also holds, as she told us, the traditional appointment as tribal legislative councilwoman of the Pauma Tribe of Southern California. They were both with us from Albuquerque, where they've been meeting all week and they're very generous to come and talk some more after having a very busy couple of days. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KEEL: Thank you. (Foreign language spoken).

Ms. MEJAL DIXON: Thank you.

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