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Native American Caucus: Educating lawmakers about history is key

Navajo legislator: little knowledge on native history

PHOENIX – A lack of knowledge about American Indian history hinders politicians as they deal with issues important to Arizona’s tribes, a Navajo lawmaker said Wednesday.

“We need to educate them on the foundations of native governments,” Sen. Albert Hale, D-Window Rock, said as the Legislature’s Native American Caucus held its first meeting. “We can step forward and be an example of how we can deal with these issues in Arizona.”

Hale, former president of the Navajo Nation, paired with fellow Navajo lawmaker Rep. Chris Deschene, D-St. Michaels, to start the caucus, a bipartisan forum for legislators to discuss issues facing Arizona’s 21 federally recognized tribes, which have more than 400,000 enrolled members.

Addressing the group, Ben Shelly, vice president of the Navajo Nation, touted a New Mexico law requiring that any state employee who has contact with Indian nations be trained in Native culture.

“Twenty-two tribes supported this bill, and we had unity on it,” he said. “And I really believe Arizona can do that.”

The law also requires the governor to meet with tribes at least once a year. Katosha Nakai, Gov. Jan Brewer’s policy adviser on tribal affairs, told the group that Brewer is already doing that and will maintain healthy relationships with tribes.

“She is continuing meetings she started almost immediately after becoming governor with tribal leaders,” Nakai said. “She’s trying to get a sense of what they really want moving forward.”

Twenty-three legislators attended the meeting, some from districts with large tribal populations and some whose districts have no reservations. Deschene said since he and Hale are the state’s only Native American lawmakers, the rules for caucus membership aren’t as strict as those for tribal membership.

“If it was an all-Native American caucus, it would be Sen. Hale as president and me as vice president, and that would be it,” he joked. “We decided, to make this more beneficial to the Legislature, to make this open to anyone who has tribes in their district.”

Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, took a break from budget talks to wish the caucus luck.

“I did want to stop in and at least say hello and ask that I can be kept in the loop at least with what goes on in the organization to stay in touch,” he said. Rep. Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, said he looks forward to fostering deeper ties with the Indian community.

“I think that it is well worth pursuing to have some codified interaction between the state Legislature and the Native American legislature,” he said.

Hale agreed, saying Arizona needs to solidify relationships with tribes, especially because it has the most reservation land of any state.

“It promotes good relationships and good neighbors,” he said.


Arizona’s American Indian tribes

- Number of tribes: 21

- Total enrolled population: 413,000

- Acres of reservation land: 40 million

- Largest tribe: Navajo Nation, 275,000 members

- Smallest tribe Tonto Apache, 110 members

Source: Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Inc.

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