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Commerce secretary commits to Indian country

LAS VEGAS – Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke says the Obama administration supports a new round of jobs-based recovery funds for Indian country.

“The president is very supportive of additional stimulus,” Locke said in a Feb. 22 interview at the 2010 Reservation Economic Summit, noting that reservation unemployment rates are “unacceptably high.”

Many reservations face unemployment rates in the double digits, with some experiencing rates well over 50 percent, according to government data.

“The First Americans will not be the last Americans in our economic recovery,” Locke said during a speech given earlier in the day at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Congress is currently considering jobs creation bills that have support mechanisms in place for tribes. The House version of the legislation is generally more positive for tribes and tribal businesses, as it contains more direct support, like incentives under the 2009 stimulus law enacted by President Barack Obama. The Senate version takes a more incremental approach, largely relying on tax credits instead of new funds.

Karen Atkinson, president of Tribal Strategies Inc., said many tribal leaders are more supportive of the House version of the law, but the political climate makes the Senate one more attractive to many Congress members.

Locke added that significant funds from the stimulus act last year have yet to be distributed to tribes in a variety of areas, including broadband services.

In terms of his own commitment to broadband, Locke announced during the tribal gathering that the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start Program in Fort Duchense, Utah will be part of a $13.4 million Recovery Act grant to the University of Utah to provide underserved communities around the state with high-speed Internet access.

Locke said that beyond Native-specific grant funds, Native American companies need to have meaningful opportunities to vie for government contracts.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure they get that piece of the action. That will help create jobs.”

Part of what influences Locke’s mission to support American Indians, he said, derives from his work with tribes when he served as governor of Washington state from 1997 – 2005.

“I’ve come to learn from the tribes of the huge challenges they face in terms of providing education for their members to health care and to jobs. … It all comes back down to jobs, whether they have good paying jobs so that their people can have opportunities.”

Accomplishments he pointed to in working with Washington tribes were achieving a state-sponsored tribal economic assessment, and helping tribes to diversify their economies.

Beyond RES, Locke attended a U.S. Census meeting in Las Vegas later the same day. During his interview, he indicated that Indian country had been undercounted by as much as 12 percent in the 2000 count.

“It’s in the economic and political self-interest of tribes to make sure that their members are accounted for,” Locke said. “It means greater clout in the halls of Congress; it means greater clout in the state legislatures. … It also means ensuring tribes get their fair share of government funding.”

Commerce oversees the U.S. Census.

Locke said there’s been an unprecedented effort by the department to work with Native media on getting the word out on the importance of the count this year. He said, too, that more Native American field workers are being sought to count Indians door-to-door.

“Why the traditional undercount?” Locke asked. “I think it’s because of neglect by the federal government over hundreds of years toward Indian country, and so there’s been a disconnect.”

Locke said his department has a strong tribal consultation policy in place.

“We are working with the tribes in a collaborative, consulting relationship and process,” he said, noting his department fulfilled an order made by Obama in November for his agency heads to provide a plan on tribal consultation within 90 days.

Locke recently appointed Ron Solimon, a leader with the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, to the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board at the Commerce Department.

Locke said that in 2009 his department awarded nearly $16 million in grants and contracts to tribes or Native American-owned businesses.

Ernie Stevens Jr., president of the National Indian Gaming Association, said it was encouraging to see Locke’s presence at RES.

Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, called the unemployment situation on reservations “the most underreported crisis in the nation today.”