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An open letter to President George W. Bush: Do big things and do no harm

Since the Bush-Cheney transition was so truncated and did not have a Native staff member, I thought that a transition note might help to focus your staff on a few Native American issues in the early days of your administration.

Please do not wait to deal with Indian matters until you install a head of Indian affairs in the Interior Department. All too often, that person gives the administration wrongheaded advice of the sort that set the Reagan administration on a collision course with Indian country for its first six years over attempts to cut the annual federal Indian budget by one-third and to turn over tribal education and other programs to the states.

Picking fights with Indians doesn't make any sense in any administration. It would be refreshing and progressive for your White House to approach Indian affairs by adopting the physician's credo, "First, do no harm."

No administration has done much about tracing and paying out the billions of trust dollars that the federal government "manages" for and owes to Native Peoples. After about a century of generational outrages, Indians sued the Clinton administration. It played a catch-us-if-you-can game that ended up in precedent-setting contempt of court charges against the Interior and Treasury secretaries and Interior's Indian affairs assistant and, oh yes, a judgment for the Native parties.

Tell Interior, Justice and Treasury to stop stonewalling Native Peoples and the courts and Congress, and to solve the trust funds problem.

Appoint a task master to make the agencies accountable and to move the monies to the west of Washington, D.C.

Do not let the federal agencies set up any task forces or study groups or reorganizations to figure out what is wrong in Native America and what should be done to fix it. All the needed information about the poor condition and status of Native Americans is well documented and undisputed, and knowledgeable Indians can easily provide any details that might not be readily available.

Native Americans are impoverished, undereducated and in ill health. We do not own what we should and we do not control what we own, and our languages, cultures and traditional places remain threatened and endangered.

How to begin to fix that? Instruct Interior, Justice and all the land-managing agencies to remove the federal barriers that stand in the way of Native economic, physical and cultural well-being, and not to erect new ones. Make the agencies eliminate the unnecessary hoops tribes and Indians have to jump through to run programs and to get education funding.

Direct the Indian Health Service and all health agencies to start providing health care to all tribal citizens, irrespective of how close to tribal lands they may live. The majority of Indians live off-reservation, but federal health benefits are denied to anyone not living on or near reservations. Propose that Congress correct this inequity by lifting any legislative restrictions and by fully funding the initiative, including free prescription drugs to poor Indians everywhere.

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Ask Congress to appropriate monies for research and treatment of Native Americans with Type II diabetes, building on the recent discovery of the hormone resistin as a key to anti-diabetes drugs. Nearly half of the 2 million Indians have diabetes, as compared to the national rate of 6.5 percent. Ninety percent of the amputations, blindness, hypertension and kidney dialysis in Indian country result from diabetes.

Dealing with diabetes would directly affect all Native American families, in terms of physical and emotional health and in economic and employment terms. The federal government also should invest in some of those new wonder wheelchairs for Indians who likely will not benefit from the emerging medicine for diabetes.

Dealing with diabetes is a big thing. Do big things. Let the federal agencies' managers do the tinkering and tweaking that have passed for policy in recent years.

There are bipartisan models for doing big things for Indian country. The Nixon administration returned the Taos Pueblo's sacred Blue Lake and Yakama Nation's sacred Mount Adams, and approved the national Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. The Carter administration produced laws for Indian religious freedom, child welfare, tribal colleges and land and water claims.

Your father's administration did big things, too, establishing the National Museum of the American Indian and directing the return of Native American human remains, sacred objects and cultural patrimony.

Initiatives now to fund tribal cultural centers, arts programs, libraries and archives would further the purposes of those laws and would improve Indian education attainment levels dramatically.

Your campaign promise to tribal leaders in New Mexico to devote mega-bucks to tribal schools reconstruction is a big thing. Please make this part of your first budget request to Congress and emphasize self-administration and cultural and language components in Indian education.

Direct the federal agencies to give the White House a list of lands they hold whose ownership is contested by Native Peoples, and to justify their continued federal jurisdiction over them. Also ask the affected tribal governments for their views and give them a fair hearing.

Then, start returning some of the lands, beginning with those that are tribal churches and those that hold potential for bettering tribal economies.

That, sir, would be a really big thing.