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Abourezk: Tribes shouldn’t stop with stimulus win

Since the election of Barack Obama in November, an unfamiliar energy has infected the spirits of Native people across the country.

The chairman of the Democratic Party’s Native American Caucus described it as a sense of renewal, a hope for meaningful change he’s never felt before.

Others have described it as the beginning of a new era of tribal-government relations.

I’ll call it the Year of the Indian.

It was conceived Nov. 4 with the election of Obama. Its birth date is Jan. 20: inauguration day.

And it took its first steps Wednesday when the U.S. House of Representatives passed Obama’s $819 billion stimulus package. The bill now goes before the Senate, which has included $2.8 billion to help tribes.

Stimulus help for tribes

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That amount includes $545 million for Indian health care and $325 million for public safety and justice on reservations. Indian schools would see $327 million, while tribal roads and bridges would get another $486.8 million.

About $500 million would be spent on Indian housing and another $115 million on facilities improvement and repair.

I have to admit I didn’t believe federal legislators would seriously consider including tribes in the bailout package, but the fact that they have speaks to the sea of change that has occurred in American politics.

This is new territory for Native people, a land of opportunity we had all but given up on as myth.

Like a freshly sober alcoholic who’s lived too long devoid of hope, I’m still waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under me. But I’m fighting to suspend my disbelief and have some faith that change is on the horizon.

I believe the next year will be critical for tribes as they lay the groundwork for the myriad social, health and political issues they want Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to address.

The stimulus package is only the beginning, a badly needed rallying point for tribes and legislators as they embark into uncharted territory.

So many problems have reached critical levels: failing tribal governments, obsolete health delivery systems and aging reservation infrastructures, to name a few.

Still, with the political will to affect change, there is a way.

And tribes and Native advocates shouldn’t lose the momentum the last few months have provided them.

Only through education and constant political pressure will legislators continue to include us in the complete overhaul of the political and capitalist system they have begun.

It’s often in the midst of the greatest crises that societies finally find the willpower to reinvent their institutions to better serve their people. With the collapse of the banking system and election of a president fully committed to this undertaking, we find ourselves in a once-in-a-generation political upheaval.

And it will be in this turmoil that Native people will be given a window when their voices may once again be heard, and heeded.

We should grab this opportunity and not let go until our roads are fixed, our hospitals are functioning as they should and our children are attending schools that are palaces.

Then, like a proud parent, maybe we can watch this newborn hope spring into something more, something permanent and enduring.

Kevin Abourezk, Oglala Lakota, is a reporter and editor at the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star. He writes reznet’s “Red Clout” political blog and teaches reporting at the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. Abourezk was awarded a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism in 2006.