Congress rebuffs attacks on Indians

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WASHINGTON, D.C. ? After heated debate, the U.S. House of Representatives on July 17 soundly defeated two measures widely considered harmful to Indian interests.

One rider attached to the 2003 Interior Appropriations Bill would have limited historical accounting for the individual Indian and tribal trust accounts. Another, proposed by Congressmen hostile to tribal gaming, would have set up a commission to study alternate ways for the federal government to solve Indian problems. Both measures were stripped from the bill by broad bipartisan margins.

Late in the night of July 17, the House approved the $19.7 Interior appropriation bill, containing a record $2.9 billion for the Indian Health Service and $2.4 billion for the BIA. The vote was 344 to 46, drawing on support from 178 Republicans, 198 Democrats and one independent.

By a vote of 281 to 144, the House removed language that limited trust fund accounting from going back beyond 1985. A federal court has ruled that the federal government must account for trust funds back to 1887.

A second amendment removed language inserted by anti-tribal gaming forces in Congress that would have diverted $200,000 in BIA funding to create a commission on Native American Policy to study gaming and other issues. The measure was inserted in committee by U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a long-time foe of gambling and harsh critic of Indian casinos.

Attacking the effort, U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said the proposal "takes scarce funds from BIA that could be used for health, education and economic development and wastes it on yet another costly addition to a long line of more than 70 studies that have already been conducted on these same issues."

American Indian supporters won approval of his striking amendment on a vote of 273-151.

Defeat of the trust fund language drew strong praise from Elouise Cobell, plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the Interior Department for alleged mismanagement of up to a million trust fund accounts since 1888. The suit has demanded that Interior abide by a 1994 act of Congress requiring full historical accounting of the funds, a task Interior says is nearly impossible and which it tried to avoid by the rider in the Appropriations bill. The rider would have limited historical accounting to the time period 1985 to 2000 and excluded accounts arbitrarily closed before 2000.

In a statement Cobell said, "Secretary Norton and the White House unlawfully sought to include the provisions in the appropriations bill to mitigate the pending contempt decision against Norton and to evade their responsibility to conduct the all-funds accounting required by United States District Court and United States Court of Appeals.

"Most members of Congress again expressed a strong preference for settlement of the six-year-old Cobell v. Norton lawsuit. Plaintiffs concur.

"We have always sought a settlement of these issues and have always sat down with government officials in good faith; it's a shame and disgrace that the Secretary has never done the same. If Secretary Norton or the White House can show us their good faith intention to settle this case, plaintiffs will continue to be and always are ready to resolve this matter," said Cobell.

The Rahall Amendment striking the rider drew support from 281 Congressmen. Cobell praised "the diligence and fortitude (and bipartisanship)" of Reps. Rahall, D-W.Va., Kildee, D-Mich., Hayworth, R-Ariz., Pallone, D-N.J., Miller, D-Calif., Cunningham, R-Calif., and Young, R-Alaska.

Without their support, she said, "Secretary Norton and the White House would have succeeded in further harming 500,000 individual Indian trust beneficiaries."

"The bipartisan message to Washington on behalf of Indian Country today was strong and clear," said Rep. Hayworth. "Put 'trust' back in Native American trust funds by making a full accounting, and honor tribal sovereignty on gaming issues.

"I couldn't be more pleased on behalf of our tribal nations with the overwhelming votes of support today."