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Briggs: King's message remains potent for American Indians

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Across the United States yesterday, people paused to reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., if only through the flickering black and white TV footage on their local news.

''The Negro,'' King said in 1964, ''is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.'' While the reference points for King were ''the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners,'' the meaning for American Indians remains potent today.

King's vision for racial justice is particularly significant today in the U.S. Senate, which is scheduled to vote on an important law concerning health care for Natives.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act was signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, one in a series of racial justice and anti-poverty laws created in King's long shadow. The act established the IHS, which has brought medical care to reservations and urban Indian communities across the land.

Reauthorizing this legislation, including updating the IHS programs to provide current standards of medical, seems simple.

But for the last decade, this reauthorization has been kicked to the curb by those congressional and Bush administration staffers who would use Native health to compromised U.S. trust responsibility to American Indian people.

All the while, Native people suffer: Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Native youth; American Indians are 2.6 times more like to be diagnosed with diabetes, and those patients are more likely to have limbs amputated than other Americans.

Talk about exiled in your own land.

And land is at the heart of American Indian rights to government-supported health care. This care was promised in treaties that Indian nations signed with the United States. Health in exchange for the land that is America.

At the various times when treaties were signed, Indian leaders faced the annihilation of their people if they didn't make bargain ceding their land. What they asked for in return were a handful of basic needs, what the United Nations calls human rights. Among these was health care.

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The need for this care is high among Indian people, who - despite the success of Indian gaming at fewer than one-third of Indian nations - remain, according to the U.S. Census, among the poorest Americans.

To borrow some words from King, ''It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note,'' and the country has given Indian people a ''bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.''

Last week's MSNBC Democratic presidential debate, which was supposedly about race issues, could have been an opportunity for a public discussion of this Indian health legislation. Both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are among 29 Democratic senators co-sponsoring the act in this Congress.

But debate organizers failed to include Natives who, like leaders from black and Hispanic organizations, could have participated by providing questions.

The lingering question for me is if King's dream was of a day when ''little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as brothers and sisters,'' are American Indians the left-outs?

Maybe. King, as visionary as he is, was a man of his time. The divide recognized in media and government at that time was as black and white as the televisions were then. But King would evolve his vision in the last five years of his life to include poor people and Vietnam War opposition. Among his colleagues were those who went on to support Indian treaty rights.

As a nation, if we take King's legacy as more than a freeze frame, then we need to pursue justice for all.

In Congress, the swift passage of the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act will provide a measure of life-saving justice for American Indians.

Kara Briggs is the co-director of the American Indian Policy & Media Initiative of Buffalo State College in New York.