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Clark: Time will tell if listening sessions yield action

Since becoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., has been attending listening sessions in Indian country. One listening session, hosted by the Gila River Indian Community, took place Feb. 18.

The session was sparsely attended by community members of Southwestern tribes. Community members were not the only ones thinly represented; it seemed only a fraction of tribal chairmen, presidents and councilmen were also in attendance.

Dorgan began the session with a brief statement, making certain to point out that he was there to listen and not to talk. In his introduction, it was clear that his goal was to hear about tribes' concerns and priorities. ''I am trying to hold meetings around the country to talk with tribal leaders and tribal members about the issues affecting American Indians and the agenda that we're going to pursue on the Indian Affairs Committee in the United States Senate,'' Dorgan said.

Critical observers of the listening session might have been quick to recognize its setup: representatives of the Great Father of Washington sitting in front of cautious Indian people who were most likely thinking, ''This again?''

Dorgan was optimistic about addressing the numerous issues afflicting tribal communities. ''The fact is we have very serious problems to address and we're going to want to do that on the committee in a very aggressive way,'' Dorgan said, referring to the issues many tribal communities face regarding housing, healthcare and education.

A number of tribal leaders took to the microphone to express their concerns and voice the needs of their people.

''I would like to make the request on the behalf of all Indians and tribes that the Senate increase the budget for health care,'' said Jamie Fullmer, chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation and president of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. ''A fact sheet from the 2005 per capita compared to other federal health expenditure benchmarks from the IHS shows that medical for federal prison per individual receives $3,242. In 2005, IHS expenditure per individual is $2,130,'' he said. ''I would like to express, for the record, that a prisoner in the United States receives more funding per individual.''

Beyond health care, other issues and concerns brought to the attention of the committee were encroaching urban developments, water rights, education, housing, the proposed delisting of the bald eagle, methamphetamine usage and the general lack of [federal] funding.

These issues and concerns are not new. They have existed since the beginning of tribes' relationships with the U.S. government. One can only wonder how long community members and tribal leaders will continue to voice their concerns and issues to a ''listening'' federal government. One thing is clear: some leaders were certain about the redundancy of the listening session.

''I have seen many tribal leaders go to Washington and make the statements; and I kind of hate to say this, but it's [...] the same thing we are saying again,'' said Wendsler Nosie, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, regarding the repetitiveness of the listening session.

On a more radical note, Councilman Charles Stevens, Gilson Wash District of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, made the following suggestion: ''Why doesn't the United States government give us thirty to forty days' notice; we will move off the reservation and you guys come over there and bomb the hell out of us. Then you guys can move in and build schools and hospitals.'' The cynical remark referred to the United States' war in Iraq and the diversion of already lagging funding for tribes.

The passage of time will be the only way to tell whether Dorgan's listening sessions will yield action. For the time being, his commitment to tribes will be tested by tribal leaders themselves, and their continuing lack of funds.

Jerome Clark, Dine', is a graduate student at Arizona State University. He is co-founder of the grass-roots organization Council Advocating an Indigenous Manifesto in Tuba City, Ariz. He can be reached at tubadirt@gmail.com.