FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Retired Gen. Wesley Clark said Feb. 1 that the federal government "must forge a new relationship with Native American reservations" to make up for years of neglect.
"We're going to start with the Bureau of Indian Affairs," said Clark, a Democratic candidate for president during a campaign stop in Flagstaff before Feb. 3's primary vote in seven states. Clark won the Oklahoma primary and finished second in Arizona, New Mexico and North Dakota.
"The first thing we are going to do is fund the BIA and secondly we are going to put people in it who truly understand Native Americans. Then, I'm going to be looking for a Native American to lead the agency," Clark said.
Clark said his number-one concern was making sure that the U.S. government honors its promises to tribes because "the government is still not living up to its end of the bargain with Indians.
"I'm very worried about tribal sovereignty, I'm very worried about education of Native American children, I'm very worried about all the treaties that have not been fulfilled over time. We're going to work on all of those things quickly after I get in office," Clark said.
Clark also said that a rural economic recovery program that he champions, called the new markets tax credit, will allow Native Americans involved in business to get the same kind of tax breaks as non-Indian business owners in rural areas.
"This program will not discriminate against people living on reservations," Clark said. "It's for all of rural America and we're going to make sure that all those people get their fair share. We are going to change the way that the Small Business Administration gives loans in economically depressed areas. These kinds of programs will be of great benefit to people living on tribal lands, too."
Clark said he had been briefed on the Cobell v. Norton federal court case and said that he was "intrigued" by the arguments that were made by the plaintiffs.
"We need to return to the tribes all the money that the federal government has held over time. And, I want to emphasize the word all the money," Clark said. "Whether that is trust fund money or other money that is rightfully due to individuals, we must do what is right and return the money."
According to a position paper put out last week by Clark, the candidate said he would work to build the government-to-government relationship with Indian nations that he did to build a worldwide alliance against former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was later tried as a war criminal.
"The alliance that worked in Kosovo represents the kind of government-to-government relationship that the federal government should have with tribal governments here in America," according to Clark's position paper.
Clark said that it was "inexcusable" that Indian Health Service has a $2.9 billion shortfall for clinical services, especially since American Indians have elevated levels of diabetes and other diseases. He said he has a plan for affordable health insurance for everybody and universal coverage for children, although he did not specify the particulars for Indian country.
Clark also vowed to expand access to Head Start for Native American students, to rebuild crumbling schools on the reservations and to strive to bring graduation rates up to match the outside world but did not say how he would do it.
But Clark was specific on what he would do to aid reservations on matters of homeland security.
He said that he would change the Bush Administration's policy of giving first responder funding to only states and municipalities and would provide such funding directly to tribal governments.
"Tribal governments are responsible for hundreds of miles of our borders and for their tribal members who live near missile sites, power plants, dams and other likely targets for terrorist attacks," Clark's position paper said. "He (Clark) will not allow arrogance toward Indian country to prevent the full consultation with tribal leaders that is necessary to secure us all."
Among the prominent Native Americans who have endorsed Clark are former BIA Director Kevin Gover, former associate solicitor for Indian affairs Deril Jordan, former National Indian Gaming Commission Vice Chairman Elizabeth Horner, former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah and former Hopi Tribal Chairman Vernon Masayesva.