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Democrats set policy for Indian country

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WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats conferred with more than 150 tribal leaders
for nearly six months to come up with policy recommendations on Indian
country issues.

The senators and tribal leaders touched on most subjects that affect Indian
country: justice, housing, trust reform, land and natural resources,
education, economic development, and more.

"Senate Democrats initiated this process because we wanted to hear directly
from Indian country about the issues of greatest concern," said Sen. Byron
Dorgan, D-N.D.

The list of priorities were developed last fall through discussions among
Senate Democrats and tribal leaders at the first-ever Senate Democratic
Native American Forum. Increased funding and more hearings were familiar
recommendations.

The top five priorities and their accompanying policy recommendations will
be turned into legislative initiatives in Congress, Dorgan said.

TRUST REFORM

The number one priority was found to be the need to reform the trust
process. The report stated: "Congress should clarify the manner in which it
carries out the fiduciary duties owed to Indian tribes and individual
Indians." It also said the United States should work to improve its spotty
record as trustee of lands, resources and funds, and consult with tribes on
decisions that impact their land and natural resources.

EDUCATION

A recommendation was made to amend the No Child Left Behind Act to address
problems unique to Indian country, such as its implementation and the
development of a culturally based education curriculum. It was recommended
that Congress recognize tribal authority and sovereignty, and mandate and
authorize funding to study the value and importance of culturally specific
education programs.

The Adequate Yearly Progress requirements should be amended, the group
stated, to account for issues specific to communities and to include
individual progress.

At the higher grades, American Indian schools frequently report low
attendance rates. NCLB requires attendance be considered when determining
the AYP; it does not authorize any consideration for cultural teaching
methods or conditions unique to American Indian schools.

The senators and tribal leaders set action steps for the Senate. Joint
hearings on Indian country's education challenges under NCLB are to be
held, and assurance given that any bill addressing education issues will
address culturally appropriate American Indian education needs.

JUSTICE

Congress should provide funding to support a sufficient number of tribal
police officers in American Indian communities and make sure the offices
have adequate equipment for safety and communication and establish
databases for relevant information. It is necessary to fund construction,
repair for detention facilities, the group stated.

To that end, the steps taken by Congress may include more funding for the
tribal Community Oriented Policing Services program and extension of the
program beyond the five year period.

Funding for facility maintenance and construction was also recommended.

Homeland security is a heavily discussed topic among tribal officials. The
Senate and tribal leaders group recommended the recognition of sovereign
status with a correction in the definitions in the Homeland Security Act of
2002. American Indian tribes should be considered separate and distinct
from local governments so that federal first responder funding would go
directly to the tribes.

HEALTH CARE

The federal government is failing in its obligation to provide adequate
health care in Indian country. The per capita health care spending for the
general population is $5,000 per year; federal prisoners receive nearly
$4,000 per year in health care. For Indian country, that annual per capita
spending is $2,000.

A substantial increase in health care funding for the IHS to meet the
federal government's responsibility of health care for American Indians and
Alaska Natives was recommended. Elimination of the shortfall should be a
commitment of the federal government over the next 10 years.

A flexible grant program to supplement existing preventive care funded by
the IHS was recommended to promote and prevent disease.

Administration of health care programs should be more flexible so the
tribes can provide for the health care needs of the community and to
enhance representation on Department of Health and Human Services work
groups and committees.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1973
authorized tribes to manage all or some of their health care through
contracts. Only 50 percent of the IHS budget is administered by tribes.

HOUSING AND INFRASTRUCTURE

One of the largest inadequacies in Indian country is housing. At present
200,000 housing units are needed immediately. It is estimated that 90,000
American Indian families are homeless or underhoused. Nearly 15 percent of
all homes are overcrowded, compared with 6 percent for the general
population; and 12 percent of American Indians lack adequate plumbing,
compared to 1 percent of the general population.

The group recommended that Congress support increased funding and enactment
of legislation that would improve federal housing programs. Also, the
Senate should take an active role to ensure that the Department of Housing
and Urban Development fully implements the existing consultation policy.
Expansion of the homebuyer education programs, streamlining of the BIA
mortgage approval and title process were also recommended.

Safe water and waste systems are problematic on some reservations. An
estimated 35 percent of homes in some areas lack adequate, safe water and
waste systems. The group recommended Congress increase funding to the IHS,
the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture to
provide management and building of tribal systems.

Economic development is a much-repeated subject on many reservations, where
high unemployment and lack of work skills is prevalent. Congress is
encouraged to create parity in the tax code and support existing business
assistance programs with a proven track record in Indian country. The
Community Development Financial Institution Program, the Tribal Business
Information Center and the Financial Literacy Program were cited as needing
additional funding. Also, the Section 8(a) minority-owned small business
program and any other small and disadvantaged business program should
receive attention from Congress and additional funding.

"This body of work represents months of collaborative effort by many
leaders from across Indian country. On behalf of the Democratic Caucus, I
want to express my gratitude for this work which will inform our efforts in
the 109th Congress and beyond," Dorgan said.