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Can Indiana Native affairs commission be fixed?

INDIANAPOLIS - With five members of the Indiana Native American Indian Affairs Commission having resigned from the group recently due to concerns with state leadership, some Indians in the state are left wondering whether Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels is paying attention to their needs.

Resigning commissioners Brian J. Buchanan, Linda Madagame, Dark Rain Thom, Ray Gonyea and Reggie Petoskey said in a joint statement released in April that Daniels and his administration ''have broken many, many promises to us'' and ''have intentionally blocked our efforts to help Indiana's Native people, and on specific occasions have disparaged us and lied to us.''

Their main complaints center on the administration's failure to fill all the vacancies on the commission. The panel was always intended to include 15 voting members, but Daniels has only appointed 14 people, which sometimes left the commission deadlocked.

The resigning members also cited a lack of administrative support and said they found e-mails from the administration on an office computer that contained ''disparaging, disrespectful and hateful messages,'' including words and phrases like ''those crazy Indians.''

Another problem is that the state government's Web site about the group contains outdated information, including listing contact information for an executive director for the commission who quit her position in February. Requests to the governor's office to update the information have gone unanswered, according to ex-commissioners.

Founded as a result of an executive order in 2003 by the late Democratic Gov. Frank O'Bannon, the commission is intended to advise government officials on American Indian issues in the areas of employment, education, civil rights, health and housing.

But the commissioners who resigned say that the mission has been broken almost from the beginning, noting that the group's first chairman, Brent Gill, often found himself on the receiving end of much criticism from some state Indians and received little support from the governor. Gill ultimately resigned.

Indian leaders have also expressed concerns that state law forbids the group from talking about tribal sovereignty. State law says that the commission may not make recommendations on ''negotiations between a tribe and the state or federal government concerning tribal sovereignty'' and ''gaming on tribal land.''

''That language has created a major stink,'' said Buchanan, who headed the group until he resigned. ''Many of us never supported it in the first place.''

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Officials who resigned from the group say they were told by administration officials that they needed to try to ''grab the low-hanging fruit'' instead of focusing on their bigger concerns, like educating legislators on state-recognition issues facing some tribes in Indiana.

Since the current crop of commissioners first started meeting in early 2006, members have made some progress, including developing supplemental educational materials for grade school students on Native history and organizing town hall meetings around the state to increase people's knowledge of the commission.

Jane Jankowski, the governor's press secretary, said Daniels' office is currently in the process of collecting names of Indian individuals who might be interested in serving as replacements on the commission. She noted, too, that it is rare for the governor's office to receive five resignations from a commission in one day.

''We've had a difficult time filling positions on this commission because we've had people indicate to us that they're not willing to serve,'' Jankowski said. ''There has been a lot of internal strife within the commission in the past.''

When queried on the specific instances of ''internal strife,'' she said she did not know of specific issues, but added that some feedback the governor has received ''is that there's been frustration that there have not been a lot of accomplishments in recent time.''

Jankowski said it is the governor's commitment to see the commission ''get back on the right track again'' and ''moving forward.''

Buchanan, who serves as chief of Indiana's Miami Nation Tribe, said he does not believe the governor will be able to fix the systemic problems regarding the commission.

''This administration has its own expectations,'' Buchanan said. ''And that is to make the governor's administration look good - not to address the true concerns of the Native community.''

''If powers change, then definitely I see it as a possibility to get back on track again,'' he added.

According to the 2000 Census, about 20,000 American Indians live in the state, including members of the Miami, Wea, Potawatomi and Shawnee tribes. Indian leaders believe the number is at least 40,000 and have said the census did not account for a large number of Indians in the state.