Honoring Nations: Sarah Hicks: NCAI and the Partnership for Tribal Governance

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former NCAI Policy Research Center Director Sarah Hicks discusses the growth of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and specifically its recent initiatives to support the nation-building and advocacy efforts of Native nations.

Native Nations
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Hicks, Sarah. "NCAI and the Partnership for Tribal Governance." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economics, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Presentation.

"I want to start by just thanking you for allowing me to be here with you. On behalf of NCAI's executive board, our advisory council for the Policy Research Center, and our executive director Jacqueline Johnson Pata, we really appreciate the time that you've given us here today to talk about our work at the National Congress of American Indians, the work of the Policy Research Center, and in particular, a new initiative that I think is very closely related to the work that you're doing here and that I hope there will be some significant opportunity for collaboration on. So that's essentially what I'm going to talk about this afternoon. I've offered to try to shorten my remarks a bit so that I hope we can really get to the interaction. My hope is to present a bit of background information to you, and then to really have a rich discussion about how we might work together to accomplish this goal of our new initiative. So I'll talk a little bit about NCAI, about our Policy Center, and then about the Partnership for Tribal Governance, a new initiative that we're launching.

I know many of you are familiar with NCAI, but for those of you for whom it's new, I thought I would just give a quick thumbnail sketch. The National Congress of American Indians is the oldest, largest and most representative national Indian organization serving the broad interests of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. We were established after a national conference in Denver, Colorado in 1944 to serve as a representative congress of Indian nations -- a kind of United Nations of Indian tribes if you will. So we serve as a forum for consensus-based policy making, a place where tribes can come together for discussion and develop an opinion about what's in their best interest. We are the collective voice of Indian tribes. NCAI has a committee structure and we have staff that have expertise in various policy areas and we address a huge range of issues. Our agenda is large -- really everything that tribal leaders prioritize from health, education and child welfare to cultural preservation, natural resources management, economic development -- you name it, we work on it. In our small organization of about 25 people we do a lot of different kinds of work. We advocate on behalf of tribes with the U.S. Congress and administration, we conduct legal and policy analysis, we do research, we develop policy, we educate the public and media and we build tribal capacity through trainings and technical assistance.

Next I'm going to tell you a little bit about the Policy Research Center within NCAI, the center that I direct. But first I wanted to share with you a few quotes that really underscore the reason that our policy center was established. So the first quote is from a former councilman Eddie Tullis, from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. And he says, 'Outsiders have researched us to death and the research doesn't even benefit us.' A quote from Dr. Stephen Cornell, our friend, director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona, 'Data is political.' And finally, Chairman Ron Allen, from the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe in Washington State, says, 'Tribes need data to support their own self-determined agendas.'

So our Policy Research Center was established through the wisdom of our leadership at NCAI. At around the time of our 60th anniversary as a national organization, our leadership reflected on the challenges that they faced in making policy that really benefits Indian people. And they realized that they needed a new resource, a center that would focus on anticipating hot policy issues, that would impact tribes, work with tribes to prioritize those opportunities, and develop the information and data that tribes would need to make informed decisions on behalf of their communities. So our center was established in 2003 as a national tribal policy research center that would focus only on issues facing tribal communities. Our focus is on forward thinking, deliberate, proactive Indian policy development opportunities and the development of timely, credible information to equip tribal leaders to make good decisions for their communities.

When I tell this story about the history of our center, I think about the discussions that our leadership had as they deliberated about this. And it was really striking to hear these powerful leaders, some of whom have been serving their communities for decades, who are talking about the position that they're in to be good stewards of their community, to make good decisions on behalf of their community but without the adequate information to do so. And to hear the stories of people saying, 'We're making these incremental decisions because we're not sure what the impact will be and we're crossing our fingers, or we're praying, that whatever we're doing isn't going to have too bad of an impact.' It was really striking to hear the compelling rationale, the stories, their practical experience about not having the data and information they needed to make those good decisions on behalf of their community -- so feeling that heavy weight, that responsibility of being a steward of protecting your community, of doing things that benefit your community but without the appropriate resources, without the appropriate information and data to do so. So that was really the impetus for our center. The reason for our establishment was to help the tribal leaders to forecast those opportunities for policy development, to gather together the data and information in a credible and timely way, to inform tribal leader decision making, to really equip tribal leaders to make good decisions.

The vision of our Policy Research Center is to support Indian Country in shaping its own future. So we're a tribally driven research center, we have a tribally driven agenda. And we've taken seriously the need to forecast those opportunities for policy development, to get ahead of the curve, if you will, to help tribal leaders to think about the issues that are coming down the road in three years, in five years, to frame them in appropriate ways, to help think about scenarios and to inform their decision making with data.

Six years ago, our national advisory council directed us to take on four areas of work. We call them 'buckets of work' because the lines between these activities aren't always clear, sometimes they overlap. And I'm from Alaska so we like to use bucket analogies, but sometimes what's in buckets sloshes out, so it's not always neat and clean, but there are kind of four basic buckets of work that we think about. The first bucket of work is a clearinghouse and this is really about how we organize information, how we make it accessible. So we look at publicly available data, information that's already out there in the public domain, and how we can organize it in ways that allow tribal leaders to access it. So if you're going to testify on the [Capitol] Hill, you're going to a hearing -- there's a hearing next Wednesday about the impact of the 'silent depression' on communities of color. And so our executive director, Jackie Johnson Pata is going to go testify, on behalf of Indian Country. And so we're writing testimony about the impact of the recession -- we need to know about foreclosure rates, we need to know about the impact on small businesses. So where do we go to find this data? How can we put together the data that's kind of out there in the world, together in one place and organize it in a way that's most useful for tribal leaders, that allows them to access the information they need to make decisions locally, about their community on the ground, as well as about national policy? So we do work around this clearinghouse function. We have a web-based clearinghouse now and we're working to expand it continuously. So the intention really, is to make data more accessible.

The second bucket of work is about research support. And this is really support for the design of research and for analysis, for interpretation of data. And so we play a role -- sometimes with mainstream universities, sometimes with tribal colleges, sometimes with various other organizations, sometimes with tribes and tribal organizations -- but to really help support a function around research design and analysis. So to the extent that you have a research question, what are the best ways to answer that question given all kinds of constraints, time and budget and things like that? And once data is gathered, how do we aggregate, how do we analyze, how do we interpret data? So we play a role in research support.

Our third bucket is about tribal capacity building. And this is a really explicit part of what we do. We spend a lot of time at the beginning of research projects thinking about, what is it that we're going to leave in the community when we go? We're invited to a community, we come there to help with a particular project, but from the very beginning we're deliberate in thinking about what kind of skills, what kind of expertise, what kind of equipment, what kind of data and knowledge are we going to leave in the community once we go. So this is really about building the skills, the experience and the infrastructure to help tribes collect and analyze data in whatever ways they think are appropriate.

And then our last core bucket of work is something that we call a 'think tank' -- and I'm not sure that we're entirely happy with the terminology here yet, I think it's kind of confusing -- but the basic idea behind this, as our executive director says, is that we have the conversations that no one else will. And what we mean by that is that we serve as a forum for small groups of tribal leaders to come together to talk about politically sensitive issues that we know have the potential to have a dramatic impact on our communities. So we could think about a number of them right now. We could talk about citizenship. We could talk about per capita distribution policies. We could talk about off reservation gaming. We could talk about genetics research. There are a whole variety of issues that are significant to Indian Country and that tribes may have varying opinions about, varying experiences with, but we don't often have a forum to come together to talk about these sensitive issues in a real way -- to talk with one another intimately about our experiences, about the potential impacts of those issues and about options, policy options for dealing with them in our communities -- because there are many issues where if we don't deal with them ourselves, we know that the federal government will intervene -- where there's a perceived vacuum around policy making, the federal government will intervene to develop policy. And so, if we aren't developing our own policies, if we aren't making sure that county and state and federal governments know about the policies that we're developing, there's a real danger there. So how can we bring people together in a comfortable setting, in a way to have real conversations about these issues that could dramatically impact us, to really think about policy options? So those are the four buckets of work for our Policy Research Center.

Now I'm going to turn to the initiative that I mentioned earlier, our Partnership for Tribal Governance. I want to give you a little bit of detail about this, I'm going to spend a little bit more time on it, but I'm hopeful that at the end of my talk that this is where we can really focus our attention -- that we can have some discussion about this. And in particular, just to kind of give you a warning, I'm really interested in your thoughts, in your sense of how you might be involved in this work. Before I came here, I thought about who was going to be in this room. And I was really thinking, these are people who are on the cutting edge, these are the thought leaders in Indian Country, these are people who are engaged in their community, who are trying new things, who are learning from their experiences. And the question really is, how can this body of work that we're proposing support you, support your efforts? And how can you, in turn, contribute to this?

So Sherry Salway Black is here somewhere. Thank you. Okay, in this front table here, thanks. So I want to acknowledge her. The work that I'm going to talk about is some work that initially came out of our Policy Research Center -- some research that we did in partnership with the Native Nations Institute -- but Sherry is leading this work now. So I'm going to talk a little bit about it and then in time for our discussion, Sherry will come up here and join me so that we can have a fuller conversation about this. So let me tell you a little bit about the history of the project.

The Kellogg Foundation gave us a grant in 2006 to engage tribes by region to talk about their ideas and experiences with governance. And this interest from the Foundation, grew out of their own reflections about the effectiveness of their grant making and desire to know more about the appropriateness of investing in governance -- this foundation, this basis governance -- as opposed to investing in specific programs, various programs at the tribal level. They were really trying to understand the impact of their grant making and think about where they could have the greatest impact, how they could best support tribes. And NCAI, from our perspective, we were really interested in this conversation and were ultimately willing to take on the project because we were simultaneously receiving a groundswell of questions and resources, requests for information from tribal leaders about strategies for strengthening institutions of governance. So it was really this confluence of events. On the one hand, there's this foundation, asking us for information and asking us for our opinion, asking what we think about their grant making focus. And on the other hand we're receiving this demand for information from tribal leaders, who are very interested in what's going on in other communities and how they can learn from it, and what technical assistance providers are out there, what kind of resources are available. So it was really the confluence of these events that led us down this path. And so we took on this project with the goal to visit the various regions of Indian Country and to convene people to have a conversation about a couple of key questions. And the questions that we ultimately chose to talk to people about were these. What does tribal governance mean to you? How is tribal governance different today than it was historically? What do you want institutions of tribal governance in your community to look like in 30 years? And what resources are necessary to support the vision that you have?

So once we'd thought about this large project and began to plan for this work, our first step was really to recruit good partners. And that led us straight to the Native Nations Institute and our colleagues Dr. Stephen Cornell and Miriam Jorgensen -- who are really natural partners for a number of reasons. They have a long history of responsive and responsible research with Native communities, they have a prestigious international advisory council that is actively reflecting about governance challenges, and then also, of course, they have experience convening tribal leaders to talk comparatively about governance and about governance reform. So they were certainly natural partners for us.

(I'm thinking about what I'm going to cut back. So, I was going to tell you a little bit about how we set up the conversations. I think I'll just jump to some of our findings.)

So between September and November of 2006 -- the Policy Research Center, NNI and regional partners -- we partnered with regional intertribal organizations, convened 11 forums to gather information from elected tribal leaders, professional tribal staff, intertribal organizations, elders, youth and native citizens. So it was really a broad audience, broad stakeholder group, that we were trying to bring together. And in total almost 300 people, almost half of which were elected tribal leaders, participated in our forums that we entitled 'Strengthening Tribal Governance.' So as I mentioned, we sought regional perspectives. We were really interested in regional differences. In addition to the regional focus we also focused two sessions specifically on youth. One session was held with our NCAI Youth Commission and there was another session that was held at Arizona State University with college students there.

So our findings from this work -- At the end of our data gathering phase we were really surprised, I would have to say, about the strikingly consistent themes that we heard all over the country. When we traveled to Alaska and talked to folks from rural villages there; when we were in the Great Plains talking to non-profit leaders; when we talked to youth, middle school and high school students at NCAI conferences; it was amazing that the same themes continued to emerge. And there were four primary themes that came out of this work, four areas of focus, if you will, on future activities, so I'll just mention them briefly. There's a strong interest in governing systems reform. And what we mean by this is constitutional reform, code development, court strengthening, those kinds of activities. There's a real interest in citizen engagement, both how do governments engage citizens as well as how citizens approach government. There's a theme around leadership development, both building the skill set of current leaders. So how do we help our current leaders to acquire new skills as well as thinking about our future generations and how we build the capacity for leadership there? And finally there was a theme that, unlike these three first themes -- which are kind of internally focused, things the tribe itself could do -- there was a fourth theme which was complimentary but external to the tribe. There was a strong theme around public education and media education. And so there was a strong sense among tribes that no matter what we're doing in these other three areas internally -- We can be doing really great work, but if the public, if the media aren't educated about tribes' governance, then we're still losing ground on some fronts. So how do we use that intervention point to help strengthen our own work?

So with my three remaining minutes, I'm going to tell you quickly about some of the work that we hope to do in the future, because again I really want to hear from you how you can imagine working with us in this framework. So just to summarize the work of the Partnership for Tribal Governance going forward, I would say that there are three main aspects. The first is something we called investing in the movement. So we see this work to strengthen governance as a movement. We see, it's happening in pockets all over the place, there's more and more enthusiasm, there's more interest in this. So we really are seeing kind of the building of a movement to strengthen governance. And so, when we talk about investing in the movement, we're thinking about financial investments, technical assistance investments, training investments, in tribes themselves, as well as thinking about the array of technical assistance resources necessary to support them. So what role might regional intertribal organizations play? What role might experts like the Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project, who've been doing this work for years -- who have a lot of resources already that tribes would benefit from, having more readily available -- [play]? How might we think about the array of resources that we know of, that are already part of our network, as well as reach out to other resources that we may not even necessarily know about yet? So how might we build that field by investing in the movement? The next area of work combines a few components that are really about bringing together policy makers, practitioners, researchers who are focused on aggregating what we already know -- making sense of all the data and information that's already out there -- prioritizing what we still need to know -- so a policy research agenda -- and then building the infrastructure to expand this work.

So I mentioned there are certainly people who are already doing this work. We don't think that we're new to the game here and that we wrote the book on this and this is the be all and end all. Really a lot of this work is about organizing what's already out there, helping tribes to make sense of it, helping them to navigate it, helping them to make good decisions about resources that can really be beneficial to their communities. So we really think about how do we enhance, how do we organize, how do we expand the infrastructure for this work around strengthening tribal governance? And so this would include things like knowledge management, technology platforms and applications, communication, education and training -- so a whole variety of components you can imagine there. And then I'll just mention briefly the learning and evaluation partnership.

So in addition to supporting work on the ground, we are very interested in a more systematic way of gathering information, and making sense of information, about what's really happening. So we've been working with NNI and others to develop, what we call, an action framework. We were strongly advised -- maybe I could say -- not to call it a theory of change, but to call it an action framework. So now we talk about action framework. But we've developed this action framework, which is really a backdrop for a series of tools. We've talked about developing some assessment tools, we've talked about planning tools, and we've talked ultimately about evaluation tools, and we're talking about real time evaluation here. So as tribes are taking steps, as they're implementing pieces of this work, how is it that they're getting feedback about how things are working? How is it they're processing this information, deciding about other appropriate strategies to try? And at the regional and national level, how do we aggregate these experiences in ways that make it easier for other tribes to decide what will work for them and to try to take some of the same steps?

So I think that learning and evaluation partnership is really critical. And so maybe I'll just end with that. I think my time is up so I'll just say [thank you] for having me here. And I'd really love to hear your thoughts and certainly, further questions about what I've shared. I'd invite Sherry to come up here with me in case they're really tough questions. And thank you for your time."

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