Congressional probe an attack on economic future

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On the surface, the recent attacks on Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) for
receiving large no-bid federal contracts appears to be only directed at
Native Alaskan 8(a) contracting. However, tribal federal contracting, in
the lower 48, could be harmed if Congress decides to change the tribal 8(a)
program that was created, in the first place, to remove institutional
barriers to tribal economic development.

This is not just about Indians: All minority 8(a) contracting could suffer
if drastic changes are made to the 8(a) set-aside program. Today we are
witnessing increasing calls to end all types of affirmative action
programs: minority 8(a) set-asides could be added to that doomed list. I
hope our friends from the various minority groups will stand beside us and
let Congress know that we are holding them accountable for a fair arid
equitable investigation of ANC's federal contracting.

From the news coverage, it appears that the ANCs are the focus of this
investigation although they were awarded these contracts by federal
agencies imbued with the power to award such contracts. A March 5
Washington Post article stated that federal lawmakers Rep. Thomas M. Davis
(Republican from Annandale, Va.), Chairman of the House Government Reform
Committee, and the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los
Angeles, Calif., called for a congressional investigation of 8(a) contracts
awarded to ANCs.

The National Indian Business Association has learned from other minority
groups that there are a lot of factions we do not know about, including
hidden agendas, and the real who and what is behind why they are calling
for this investigation. If so, ANCs and tribal governments and potentially
the whole 8(a) program could become a causality of a political battle.

Recent studies indicate the American Indian economy is at least 20 years
behind the mainstream economy. Even with the advent of tribal gaming, only
a handful of tribes have realized a substantial financial turn of fortune.
These tribes are now diversifying their financial portfolios and creating
joint-ventures that will help them build sustainable economic futures
beyond gaming.

The issue of any "special" federal contracting incentives for American
Indian and Alaska Natives continues to be one of a lack of education for
the general public, non-Native business owners and, to a large extent,
Congress. Tribes are not a minority group, but sovereign nations that have
a unique relationship with the federal government that is defined and
protected by constitutional law; the legal basis for federal programs for
Indians.

Despite the United States' treaty obligations and trust responsibility,
Indian country continues to struggle with cuts in federal funding needed to
meet the basic day-to-day needs of their tribal communities. As a people,
we continue to be the poorest in this land of plenty. Some tribes and ANCs
see government contracting as a way out of poverty and have created strong,
qualified and proven businesses that provide the taxpayer with value
received for services rendered.

The issue of ANCs 8(a) set-aside contracts may be a case of business
jealously. There was applause when federal contracting began increasing
opportunities for Hispanic, women and African-American business owners -
people believed that it was about time the federal government opened its
doors for these often disenfranchised Americans.

It appears that when American Indians begin catching up people feel
threatened and attack our rights to an equal share of the American dream.
It is frustrating that the very minority groups that once were left out of
the process are now hopping mad that tribes and Alaska Natives are finally
getting a chance to be real business players with the federal government.

The education needs to begin now. The treatment of tribes by the federal
government has crafted many shameful pages in America's history. Most
Americans don't know the truth or, to borrow a line from the movie "A Few
Good Men," "can't handle the truth."

Many of the more than 200 Alaska Native villages that the corporations
represent are in very remote regions and have limited access to resources
that the rest of us take for granted. The Alaska Native story can be
described as a "they pulled themselves up by their boot straps" story; one
that should make every American feel good knowing that if you have business
savvy, work hard and are receptive to all the opportunities for which you
are entitled, you can be successful.

Federal contracting is to Alaska Natives what tribal gaming is to the
tribes in the lower 48: vital to the economic welfare of these communities.
In most cases, these federal contracts provide the necessary funding for
village community programs including health, education and child and elder
care. Unlike the tribes in the lower 48, Alaska does not have gaming.
Without the revenues from federal contracting many programs would disappear
and the people would suffer.

Imagine if tomorrow Congress decided to make tribal gaming illegal and they
shut down all our casinos and bingo halls. Not only would there be tens of
thousands of people out of work, most of whom are non-Native, but many
tribal programs that have become dependent on gaming revenues would have to
be cut. And again our people would suffer.

This nightmare scenario could become a reality if we don't stand guard
against it. Indian country must stay alert to any threats (like this
current ANC situation) to our sovereignty and our well-being no matter how
it is disguised. If Congress takes steps to change or perhaps end tribal
8(a) contracting, it establishes a precedent that could be used against
Indian country to attack tribal gaming and any number of other tribal
rights and programs.

To share a holistic view, the ANCs might have avoided this attack had they
been more generous in sub-contracting with minority-owned businesses. But
it has become an issue of money. If the money had been dispersed more
readily through the minority and small business community maybe they
wouldn't have cried foul.

Now all Native 8(a) contracting could be in danger, and the decades of hard
work we have devoted to opening these doors of business opportunity may be
for naught. In the future we may find the doors shut in our faces.

Government no-bid contracting is not something new. This has been a federal
government practice since 1953 to equalize the playing field for small
disadvantaged and minority- and woman-owned businesses. It wasn't until the
recent past, 1992, that the federal government included tribes in their
contracting set-aside program. I joined the Small Business Administration's
(SBA) Office of Native American Programs in January of 1992 and began
implementing the tribal 8(a) contracting program. Before that, tribes were
pretty much left out of the process.

It is unfortunate that this cry of "you got a bigger piece of the
contracting pie than me" could turn into an attack on 8(a) contracting for
all Native-owned 8(a) firms. The potential impact of this type of
congressional investigation is daunting. Indian country's economic
development future and perhaps that of our minority brothers and sisters
has a lot at stake and a lot to lose.

Pete Homer, Mojave, is president and CEO of the National Indian Business
Association. He is an enrolled member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes
of Arizona.