Making policy

Tribal governments meet in Reno, out of spotlight


The NCAI conference in Reno drew nearly a thousand delegates from around the nation.

From Minnesota to Alaska, Native Americans traveled this week to Reno for a conference of the National Congress of American Indians, believed to be the oldest all-Native American organization in the nation.

Meeting in a casino/hotel convention center, between 800 and 1,000 delegates assembled in workshops and conferences. The conference dealt with dozens of policy issues facing tribal governments around the nation, and participants made it clear they would cherry-pick from the experiences of non-tribal society rather than accepting anything whole.

At a time when Truckee Meadows governments are giving subsidies to big businesses like Scheels and Cabela’s, Reno Sparks Indian Colony chair Arlen Melendez urged his colleagues from across the nation to focus on aiding small businesses.

“When we help those individuals—small-business owners … we’re really helping ourselves,” he told the gathering, calling such a policy a true “entrepreneurial spirit.”

After that speech to the conference, Melendez said the Reno Sparks Colony has one person working on economic development, and he is hoping to add a second person, and that they are expected to focus on small businesses.

Melendez also told the conference that the Reno Sparks Colony has in the past carefully tracked “our unemployment rate compared to the rest of” the region and is about to run another such count. The last colony count found a 20 percent jobless rate, which suggests it is more accurate than state and federal government figures. There is a built-in distortion in state and federal calculations because as soon as a person’s jobless pay runs out, he or she falls off the unemployment radar and is no longer counted for the purpose of the publicly announced rate.

There was considerable comment at the conference about dysfunctional institutions outside the tribal world, such as Congress and the health care industry, and the need for tribes to avoid their mistakes.

Joe Garcia, former four-term president of the Congress, said that the cliché “Government should operate like a business” has led tribes into bad policies.

“Mixing government with business—trying to use the same approach to government will not work,” he told the conference.

Reno Sparks Indian Colony chair Arlen Melendez (right) greets former National Congress of American Indians president Joe Garcia outside the general assembly of the Congress’s national conference in Reno.


Garcia said later that there’s a difference between government’s obligation to serve the public and the business community’s mission to sell goods and services.

“There are some things you can use [from the business community], but not blanket.” he said. “Like health care, for instance. … Data is there, but it’s how you use the data to make a difference. That’s the part of it that’s hard.”

During a discussion of sustainability in fields like housing, and how to get the message out, Melendez said it had a lot to do with thinking ahead. He had learned early in life about the way resources can be used and re-used, and he learned it from the Vietnamese, and recently was given a reminder. He told of how, while serving in Vietnam, he purchased a photo album that has served him well for more than four decades.

Recently the binding started to fray and in looking at it to try to repair it, he discovered that it was made in part from a U.S. military c-ration box.

“[T]he Vietnamese were taking things and selling them back to us,” he joked.

“We have to have this mindset that’s different than what we’ve had in the past, and I think tribal governments can help.”

Out of sight

Surprisingly, the conference was virtually ignored by the news media, though it featured discussions of dozens of issues facing tribal governments like sustainable housing, tissue donations, tribal anti-terrorism measures, economic development, international trade, climate change, domestic violence, poverty, taxes, health care, trust lands, tribal sovereignty, gambling, cultural issues, food production and safety, and water. Story ideas, in other words, were hard to miss.

Policymaking by tribal governments on issues like these has application—and thus news value—in Nevada, which contains 29 colonies and reservations. The 29 represent Washo, Shoshone, Paiute and Goshute tribes. One of them, in fact, was just a couple of miles from the site of the conference—the Reno Sparks Indian Colony.

A conference delegate seated at the otherwise empty press table said he had seen no non-tribal reporters present during the first three days of the conference but believed that the delegates themselves were getting the word out through social media.

Garcia said he has found that journalism is quick to cover conflict in the tribal world, but not policymaking.

“I’ll bet if there was a tribal leader that got into a quarrel outside and got into a fight, the media would be here in no time,” he said.

Even national developments affecting Native Americans failed to attract news coverage of the conference. On June 25, the second day of the conference, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling on a Native American child custody case. On June 26, the third day of the conference, President Obama created a new Council on Native American Affairs. Neither of those developments drew reporters to the conference.

Then, after three days of ignoring the tribal speakers and other participants at the conference, a speech by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell suddenly made news on the last day of the gathering. An Associated Press account of Jewell’s remarks, made to fewer than half the delegates who remained in town, was posted on news websites across the nation. In the end, the speech of a white speaker was the biggest news to come out of a Native American event.