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American Indian governments deserve homeland security

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent introduction of weapons grade anthrax into the United States postal system and congressional office buildings in Washington, D.C., the president and the Congress have worked closely to respond to the need to rebuild and strengthen the nation's public health, national security and emergency response systems.

Current versions of Homeland Security Department legislation incorporate state and local governments, health officials and law enforcement entities. However, to make certain the United States is fully prepared to prevent and respond to terrorist activities on all fronts, I believe tribal governments must also be included.

While some efforts have been made to include tribal governments in homeland security initiatives by designating them as "local" governments, the unique government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribal governments necessitates specialized consideration to fully accomplish the federal government's trust responsibility to tribal governments as carried out through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS).

Despite the government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States, the United States has disregarded its trust responsibility and failed to include and consult with tribal governments in homeland security planning. Moreover, there are no specific provisions for the BIA or the IHS to participate in homeland security programs and funding.

In an attempt to remedy these situations, I am writing a bill to ensure the coordination and integration of tribal governments in the national homeland security plan and to establish an Office of Tribal Government Homeland Security within the Department of Homeland Security. The bill will also designate specific provisions for the BIA and the IHS to participate in homeland security funding.

Throughout many areas of the United States, tribal, BIA and IHS facilities are the only sources available to provide emergency health services, disaster response, and law enforcement to the tribal and non-tribal community, thus serving the role as "first responders" in the event of a terrorist attack.

To ensure the bill meets the needs and honors the rights of tribal governments, I have consulted with representatives from the National Indian Health Board (NIHB), National Congress of American Indians, California Rural Indian Health Board and tribal governments in designing its contents. I am pleased that we are moving forward together on this initiative. I would like to acknowledge Ms. Lenna Aoki of NIHB for lending her expertise in government relations and strategic planning in this legislative effort.

Many tribal governments have requested that, for the purposes of this bill, their governments be treated as states, as appropriate, for developing funding methodologies, planning, consultation and coordination. Such inclusion will ensure tribal governments are adequately prepared to respond to homeland security threats in a similar capacity as state governments. Such designation would make tribal governments eligible for grant monies and funds to help prepare, prevent and respond to terrorist activities, and for other related purposes.

To provide for the public health and safety on tribal lands and in the surrounding communities, it is imperative to establish tribal participation in homeland security initiatives. Tribal governments must be included in the national strategy for homeland security and receive an appropriate share of related funding. I will introduce this legislation when Congress resumes in September. After that, I urge you to write your Congressmen and ask them to support the Tribal Government Homeland Security Coordination and Integration Act.

Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., currently serves as an active member of the Native American Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a member of the House Resources Committee ? the committee with jurisdiction over all matters regarding the relations of the United States with Native Americans and American Indian tribes ? he has been a defender of the sovereign status of Indian tribal governments.