American Indian policy group convenes at Mohegan Sun, urges vigilance in Trump era

Lynn Malerba, left, chief of the Mohegan Tribe, and Kevin Brown, chairman of the Mohegan Tribe, walk in for the Presentation of Colors during the National Congress of American Indians' mid-year conference on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Mohegan Sun. This year's conference, "Sovereign Infrastructure: Building Our Communities Through Our Values," continues through Thursday, June 15. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Mohegan — Leaders of the largest representative body of American Indians and Alaska Natives don’t plan to let the uncertainty of the Trump administration's approach to Indian affairs push them out of benefiting from policy and spending decisions, they said Tuesday at Mohegan Sun.

The Mohegan Tribe's southeastern Connecticut casino is hosting representatives from tribes across the United States this week as the National Congress of American Indians convenes its mid-year conference.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke addressed the conference in a Mohegan Sun ballroom Tuesday morning, promising to keep Indian and Native concerns in mind as he settles into his role as the head of the Department of Interior, but not before the Congress’ president made clear that Indians and Native people plan to take an active role themselves in making sure the Trump administration’s policies benefit them.

On health care, infrastructure, tax reform, land use and other issues, NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said Tuesday, tribes should be acting proactively to get their individual and collective needs met.

“We need to educate, educate, educate,” Cladoosby, the chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington, said. “We need to tell them what self-government means to you, and we need to tell them what that means legislatively ... We need to be ahead of the curve on this one. We cannot be left at the train station.”

In prepared remarks and a question-and-answer session Tuesday after remarks by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Zinke said he faces the challenge of accommodating the needs of the 567 federally recognized tribes, all with varied philosophies on the issues that affect tribal nations.

“Sovereignty has to be more than a name,” he said. “It has to be a relationship, trust, a bonding, for the tribes to decide for themselves what path is right.”

Zinke, a former U.S. representative from Wyoming, gave the department's Bureau of Indian Affairs a failing grade on providing education and health care on reservations, pledging to fix a "system that is broken."

He said Trump's proposed $1.4 billion cut to the Department of the Interior, and his plan to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs, should not be interpreted as a threat to the bureau.

"We live in a great nation," Zinke said. "We should not accept failure as the standard. We should not accept failure as normal. So I pledge to work with you, partner with you and be your advocate."

Before Tuesday's panels on topics like mental health, voting, international tribal sovereignty and education began, NCAI officials said they plan to act as advocates for the country's tribes and that tribal leaders should advocate for their members.

Tribes should be aware of how the Republican health care proposal to replace the Affordable Care Act would affect their members, for example, said Jacqueline Pata, NCAI's executive director and a member of the Tlingit Tribe in Alaska.

"This administration presents unique challenges and interesting opportunities," Pata said. “It’s important for us to know what's in the proposals ... so we can reach out to our members of Congress and be able to say what proposals work best for us. ... We need to be on the winning side of any agenda."

The conference began Monday and continues Wednesday and Thursday with meetings of regional caucuses and more panel discussions.

Kevin Brown and Rodney Butler, the chairmen of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, were on hand Tuesday to welcome the conference attendees and celebrate the General Assembly's authorization last week of a joint commercial casino, which would compete with an MGM Resorts International casino under construction in Springfield, Mass.

Brown said tribes are relying on the NCAI to represent them in Washington as the Trump administration, which he said has been uncertain in its approach to Indian issues after the Obama administration's "overt and purposeful" support for Native tribes.

"I think that's necessary right now to inform the new administration about — I mean let's be honest — things that they don't maybe have a handle on in Indian country," he said.

Zinke's commitment to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he said, is of particular concern.

"To me that's a scary proposition on its face value," he said, but added that Zinke has proven "open to dialogue" with the tribes.

m.shanahan@theday.com

Katherine Sebastian Dring, chairwoman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, stands in traditional dress for the Honor Song during the National Congress of American Indians' mid-year conference on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Mohegan Sun.  This year's conference,
Katherine Sebastian Dring, chairwoman of the Eastern Pequot Tribal Nation, stands in traditional dress for the Honor Song during the National Congress of American Indians' mid-year conference on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, at Mohegan Sun. This year's conference, "Sovereign Infrastructure: Building Our Communities Through Our Values," continues through Thursday, June 15. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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