- By Levi Rickert
NEW ORLEANS — The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) will elect a new president this week at its 80th Annual Convention and Marketplace in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Current NCAI President Fawn Sharp (Quinault Indian Nation) is term-limited and cannot seek reelection.
Three candidates are vying to replace Sharp: Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah; Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; and Marshall Pierite, chairman of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana.
Each candidate appeared on Native News Online’s popular Native Bidaské in recent weeks. Each candidate was asked the same questions. Two important questions and the candidates’ answers, which have been edited for clarity and brevity, are highlighted in the Q&A below.
What is the most important issue facing tribes in the United States today?
Andrews-Maltais: It’s twofold because we live in two worlds. We have to work in two worlds with almost equal priority. From the tribal side, trying to heal our tribal nations, there are a lot of issues with regard to tribe-on-tribe misunderstanding, and tribal disharmony.
That is rising to a significant level within Indian country, from community to community, tribe to tribe, nation to nation, but also, the discourse that’s within tribes in. We all have to take that breath. We have to work on that internally amongst ourselves as brothers and sisters as a tribal family.
On the other side of it, there are our federal partners in Congress. We go to them with really packed agendas. They talk about what they’re going to do for us, how they’re going to do it with us, and a lot of positive language, but where the rubber meets the road, where it’s important for them to actually step up and take those actions — we don’t see that.
So I’d like to be able to hold everybody’s feet to the fire. I’m a warrior for Indian Country; I’m a warrior for my people. I think that our war right now is to make sure that the United States and its obligation to us is the single most important priority.
Mark Macarro: Tribal sovereignty and the constant threat to it. What we saw with the Brackeen case and the possible overturn of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) is that this concept of settled law seems to be diminishing. It might be evaporating.
In Indian Country, we need to take stock of what we think the status quo is. We need to be on this constant campaign of being prepared to push back, not just when a lawsuit appears in front of the Supreme Court, but at the ground level when forces are trying to bring things in front of the district courts and file those cases in different parts of the country.
Marshall Pierite: Protecting and preserving our tribal sovereignty. First and foremost, you cannot speak about tribal sovereignty without talking about or speaking about empowering our women as well as empowering our youth. It’s imperative, and from a tribal leadership perspective, we just can’t do it alone. We need to build advocacy, and there’s no better advocate within Indian Country than our women and our next generation of leaders.
What is your position on the constitutional amendments that will be voted on during this week’s convention that would change state-recognized tribes from full members to associate members of NCAI?
Andrews-Maltais: The bylaws are pretty clear that everybody who has gained membership met the bylaw criteria.
Unfortunately, there is not one uniform way for all 50 states to recognize tribes within their state. And we use it for our membership. It’s a hard discussion.
I think it would be appropriate to have an NCAI Task Force. I would hope that there would be no final decision until the task force creates something that has consensus so all tribes can have standing.
There are a lot of organizations and groups that are not tribes and should not be represented as tribes or, tribal governments, or tribal nations.
We want to make sure that we have as much recognition for as many people but in the right structure.
Mark Macarro: I am in favor of these proposed constitutional amendments. They are not intended to exclude state-recognized tribes and non-federally recognized tribes, but they would change their status to associate members. They would still be in the organization, but they wouldn’t be voting delegates.
And here’s why: the National Congress of American Indians is a congress. The members of the Congress are putatively sovereigns, governmental sovereigns, and sovereign co-equals. They sit together as sovereign co-equals. Federally recognized tribes are often parties to treaties and other agreements with the United States. Federally recognized tribes have a sovereign right to self-govern, a sovereign right to create laws that are binding, and a sovereign right to assert actual jurisdiction, among other political subdivisions.
State tribes and non-federally recognized tribes don’t have these powers. They have a status in law that is not much different from being a social group, but they don’t have sovereign governmental powers.
I have found there dozens of tribal leaders from around the country who have complained that their tribal sovereignty is diminished in NCAI, as they have to sit in parity alongside entities that do not share that same sovereignty yet have the same vote on the same policy issues. And so that has come that has become an issue of contention. And you see it manifesting with these constitutional amendments.
Marshall Pierite: It goes by the policy of NCAI, and I wholeheartedly believe that we cannot allow issues to divide us.
We need an issue to unify us. My own tribe, the Tunica Biloxi, has shared ancestry homelands with the Houma Nation. We have shared a history that goes back over 200 years, and we are very great friends. They are part of our Tunica-Buloxi extended family today.
I understand the battle with some of the tribes that say state tribes don’t belong because Tunica-Buloxi was fighting that same battle with two groups within our parish. We took it upon ourselves to fight that with the state legislature and created a whole new process on how they recognize state tribes.
We have more pressing issues that we have to deal with because 2024 is upon us. It is a year away. This administration (Biden-Harris) has created so much opportunity and all our emphasis and focus should be on how we can help each other actually gain access to those economic opportunities and how we can work together instead of issues that divide us.
I feel torn about this issue. I would feel for the tribes either way. But if NCAI’s policy allows these tribes to be in, who are we to say, "Hey, listen, they don’t belong ."
To watch each candidate’s episode of Native Bidaské, go to:
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