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Civil Rights report rips federal Indian spending

WASHINGTON - The federal government is meeting less and less of its trust obligations to American Indians, according to a scathing report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that comprehensively lists the deficiencies at each federal agency that works in Indian country.

In one particularly glaring example, it notes that the U.S. government spends twice as much per capita for the health care of federal prisoners as it does on Indian people.

Mary Frances Berry, chair of the commission, wrote to President George Bush and Congressional leaders "that federal funding directed to Native Americans ? has not been sufficient to address the basic and very urgent needs of indigenous peoples. Among the myriad unmet needs are: health care, education, public safety, housing and rural development."

Elsie M. Meeks, Lakota, is the first Indian to serve on the Civil Rights Commission.

Berry points out to the President "the federal government, through laws, treaties, and policies established over hundreds of years, is obligated to ensure that funding is adequate to meet those needs."

What the Commission calls a "quiet crisis" of unmet needs comes despite increased federal funding over the last 10 years. "However," it noted, "this has not been nearly enough to compensate for a decline in spending power, which had been evident for decades before that, nor to overcome a long and sad history of neglect and discrimination."

Funding for the BIA between 1975 and 1980, for instance, "declined by $6 million yearly when adjusted for inflation."

The Commission tallied $7.4 billion in unmet Indian needs at the BIA for the year 2000. Tribal Priority Allocations registered a $2.8 billion shortfall, while it estimated the deferred maintenance backlog of BIA schools at $507 million "and increasing at an annual rate of $56.5 million."

At the Department of Health and Human Services, "the federal government spends less per capita on Native American health care than on any other group for which it has this responsibility, including Medicaid recipients, prisoners, veterans and military personnel. Annually (the Indian Health Service) spends 60 percent less on its beneficiaries than the average per person health care expenditure nationwide."

At the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Native funding increased more slowly than for the department as a whole, and "after controlling for inflation, HUD's Native American programs actually lost spending power."

The Department of Justice fares no better, as according to the Commission "per capita spending on law enforcement in Native American communities is roughly 60 percent of the national average." In addition, while DOJ should be given credit for good intentions, "Native American law enforcement funding increased almost 85 percent between 1998 and 2003, but the amount allocated was so small to begin with that its proportion to the department's total budget hardly changed."

At the Department of Education, "tribal colleges and universities receive 60 percent less federal funding per student than other public community colleges."

The Department of Agriculture's "insufficient funding has limited the success of development programs and perpetuated unstable economies" in Indian country. "Poor economic conditions have resulted in food shortages and hunger. Native Americans are more than twice as likely as the general population to face hunger and food insecurity."

The Indian food commodities program "lost funding when accounting for inflation (2.8 percent) between 1999 and 2003," the Commission said.

In conclusion, the Commission said "the conditions in Indian country could be greatly relieved if the federal government honored its commitment to funding, paid greater attention to building basic infrastructure ? and promoted self-determination among tribes."

And it also found "the federal government fails to keep accurate and comprehensive records of its expenditures on Native American programs."

It offered 11 recommendations to remedy the situations it enumerated, and said if the government failed to act, then "this country's agreements with Native people, and other legal rights to which they are entitled, are little more than empty promises."

Among those recommendations, it asked for a bipartisan action group to meet on the problem and regular assessments by the federal agencies of unmet needs in Indian country.

An emphasis on setting aside money to build infrastructure was another key recommendation, as was agency budgets "that account for the proportionality of Native American funding."

It asked Congress to "request an analysis of spending patterns of every federal agency that supports Native American programs. In addition, an independent external contractor should audit fund management of all federal agencies distributing Native American appropriations."

And it asked the federal Office of Management and Budget to "develop government-wide, uniform standards for tracking and reporting spending on Native American programs."