Abourezk: Looking back on a year spent in limbo


This time of year, everyone has a list.

Who’s been naughty, who’s been nice.

What I want for Christmas.

New Year’s resolutions.

The Golden Globes.

The top news stories of the year: Barack Obama gets elected president, the economy slides deeper into recession, George W. Bush ends his final term as president.

So, I got to thinking.

What are the 10 top stories in Indian country?

How would one person go about trying to decide that?

Obviously, one person can’t. Indian country is a vast network of interconnected tribes, each with its own history, culture and values.

So, by its very nature, such a list can only be a subjective interpretation of the past year’s events as they relate to Indians. With that caveat, I present the following top stories of 2008 in Indian country:

What are the 10 top stories in Indian country? How would one person go about trying to decide that?

• The Indian Health Care Improvement Act: Indian health advocates have spent years trying to get the legislation authorizing delivery of health care to all Native Americans reauthorized in Congress. This year, they came painfully close, winning passage of this bill in the Senate before seeing their endeavors trumped by a failing economy and congressional leaders more interested in making political hay out of this vital piece of legislation than helping this country’s first peoples.

• Indian Housing Bill: Congress passes the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act of 2008, and President Bush signs it. The act provides formula-based block grant assistance to Indian tribes, which allows them the flexibility to design housing programs to address the needs of their communities.

• Obama reaches out to American Indians, winning their hearts and minds over Hillary Clinton, whose husband, Bill, was considered a friend to Indian country. Later, Native voters will, by and large, choose Obama over John McCain, also considered by many a friend to Natives.

• Cobell lawsuit: The 12-year-old Cobell lawsuit filed on behalf of Native landowners whose lands have been mismanaged by the federal government continued this year as the plaintiffs appealed a judge’s decision to award the plaintiffs a token $455.6 million. The plaintiffs are hopeful the next presidential administration, which includes a Native attorney who once represented the plaintiffs, Keith Harper, will take a different approach than that of President Bush. “Now it is up to the next president and his Interior Secretary to settle what is the longest-running class action civil suit against the government,” lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell said this week.

• The Navajo Nation, long known for resisting the temptations of gaming, finally waded into the waters of tribal gaming, opening its first casino, the Fire Rock Casino.

• The ongoing dispute over the disenrollment of the Cherokee Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation takes a new turn as the black caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to add a stipulation to the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act that would have required the Cherokee Nation to give the Freedmen citizenship in order to receive federal housing benefits. The provision fails to become law, but a lawsuit against the Cherokee Nation’s officers continues. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Obama declines to take a position on the controversy.

• A federal investigation reveals “a culture of ethical failure” within the U.S. Department of the Interior, including allegations that at least 13 current and former interior employees rigged contracts, had sex with energy company employees and received gifts of ski junkets and golf outings.

• President Bush ends his final year in office. Rarely a friend to Indian people, George W. Bush leaves Native people with a bitter taste having spent his presidency fighting Indian sovereignty, efforts to settle the Cobell lawsuit and Indian health care legislation.

• Obama wins the presidency, promising unheard-of access to government by Native people. Indians wait patiently as the president-elect announces appointment after appointment, until finally Obama announces Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as his pick for Secretary of the Interior, overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs and management of tribal trust lands.

• Indian country looks anxiously to what it hopes will be a new year of action on behalf of Indian people after a year spent in limbo.

Kevin Abourezk, Oglala and Rosebud Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He writes for Reznetnews.org and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute.