ABERDEEN, S.D. - Networking was the theme for the Great Plains Regional Tribal/Federal Conference which brought together tribal leaders, federal and state officials as well as American Indian businessmen to talk about opportunities for economic development.
Tribal leaders said they found a wealth of options in an expansive list of resources, workshops and entrepreneurs to help boost their economies through potential business opportunities, consultants and financing to fuel tribal economies in the sessions April 10-12.
"We are bringing tribal people to the table to see what other resources are available," said Cora Jones, Great Plains Regional BIA director. Her office sponsors other conferences throughout the year on topics such as agriculture, planning and education.
As tribal leaders moved through a series of workshops aimed at improving programs and establishing prospects for economic development, the political climate for federal funding and increased assistance in developing infrastructure and new businesses was very much on their minds. Many asked members of Congress where they stand with the new administration.
In her keynote address, Deputy BIA Commissioner Sharon Blackwell told more than 200 tribal officials the nation's top federal officials are still working in the spirit of cooperation with tribes in developing policy and assistance.
"Consultation with tribes is key to the success of federal policy, federal initiative and federal vision for Indian communities," Blackwell said.
She said Interior Secretary Gale Norton will stand by a confirmation hearing statement that her commitment is to engage in consultation, communication and collaboration, all in the spirit of conservation with tribal representatives.
Blackwell reiterated Norton's statement that the Bush administration "clearly has Indian issues and Indian concerns in front of it and we will continue to press to keep those issues there."
"We've learned community-based support for Indian persons is essential to sustain long-term positive change," Blackwell said. "We've learned to encourage partnerships with our neighbors. Federal programs for Indians spread across the cabinet need to be motivated with for common goal."
She noted increases for BIA funding in the Bush 2002 budget unveiled April 9. Of the $2.2 billion in the budget, she said 42 percent of $750.5 million would go across the table in Tribal Priority Allocation funding which supports BIA and tribal programs at the local level.
Law enforcement services would get an increase of $8 million for a total of $150.7 million.
"One of our biggest concerns is addressing detention facilities. The $5 million earmarked for facilities is an important component for the bureau. We have a partnership with the Department of Justice to be able to build detention facilities, but we desperately need to maintain them. We must get our young people and those in our communities that need help into safe and secure environments."
Schools were much on the minds of tribal leaders, congressmen and BIA officials who have a lengthy list of schools in desperate need of repair or replacement. Six new schools will be built in Arizona, North Dakota, New Mexico and Washington, Blackwell said.
"The school construction request is $292.5 billion. That's an increase of $262,000 from 2001 (of which) $122.8 million will go to go to six priority schools, schools that we really consider to be the most crying need. We have made a request of $5 million for planning and design of these six schools.
"The budget also includes $161.6 million for maintenance work on facilities that will address health, safety and other issues at our schools. That's an increase of $13.6 million over last year."
Blackwell said, "There is no question that this is a strong budget request. No Indian child will be left behind."
Congressmen weren't so quick to paint such a rosy picture. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., likened the federal flow of money for tribal initiatives as a glass half empty.
He told tribal leaders the nation will need to commit more of its resources in key areas to assist in improving reservation economies as well as take a conservative approach to tax cuts.
Areas where federal dollars have been the weakest, such as money for roads, health care and education, continue to fall short in the equation for cutting taxes and funding under the federal budget. Although there has been a surplus in the past, he said legislators have been told there is no money for such projects, he said.
"We've always been told that you can't afford to build new schools, staff medical clinics or build new roads because we're broke. That was never really true. It's just our priorities weren't squared on right. We've got the resources to do some good things. We've got the money to do some catching up," Johnson said.
A recent House resolution accepted President Bush's full tax cut proposal which Republicans advertised as $1.6 trillion surplus, it is really more like $2.6 trillion over 10 years, Johnson said.
"What they are talking about is a tax cut that essentially eliminates the entire budget surplus without doing anything about all the areas of catching up we need to do.
"I'm not opposed to tax cuts. It just seems to me that you should be giving tax cuts to the people who need it the most. We ought to have some tax relief, but I don't want to give away the store, not when we have over 60 Indian schools in need of replacement and we're replacing them at a rate of one and a half per year. Schools are going on the list faster than they are going off the list."
Johnson said he supports legislation to create a mechanism for school construction that would allow tribes to execute bond issues for renovation, expansion or building new facilities. The move would provide a swifter remedy to take care of crumbling structures while tribes wait for federal funding to catch up their needs for improved classrooms.
"I'm not suggesting we retreat from our obligation to finance school repair and construction. I am suggesting there ought to be additional mechanisms to find resources to build schools in Indian country given the long list. I know of too many schools in South Dakota that were placed on the repair list and by the time they were on top the repair list, they couldn't (be) repaired any more."
The senator called for funding to assist tribal colleges and reminded the group that basic needs on the reservations remain at the bottom of the barrel of priorities.
"It is an outrage when we're financing tribal college funding per capita" at half the rate required by an ordinary community college to keep its doors open. He noted the problems with the financing infrastructure, water and the BIA.
"It just seems to me we have some monumental priorities we need to be taking care of."
Johnson called for further support of economic development.
"You can go to an area that has a significant population, but the business enterprises and job presence is a tenth of what you expect they might be in a community of that size. You walk away wondering where are the coffee shops, barber shops, shoe repair shops, gas stations and the hardware stores you would ordinarily expect to find."
Johnson went on to say successful American Indian business ventures are helping to fuel local economies, but further private partnerships are necessary to increase growth.
"Some of them are extraordinarily successful and if it were not for them, there wouldn't anything at all. They need to be complemented with efforts of promoting more entrepreneurship.
"I'm encouraged by some of the modest capitalization efforts I see such as the Lakota Fund and now the Four Bands Community Fund. We need to be doing more with revolving funds to assist with micro-lending to small tribally owned businesses. We want to continue to focus on capitalization," he said.
On the gaming front, Johnson advocated the need for tribes to have a place where they can solve disputes when states show bad faith in the negotiation of gaming compacts.
"If the state doesn't want to negotiate a compact with you in good faith, then it seems to me that it ought to have some recourse directly with the Department of Interior to deal with those issues. What we don't need is the federal government stepping in and taxing the revenues generated or otherwise try to interfere with decisions that individual tribes as sovereign nations have to make.
"What I find is that tribes that have generated revenue from gaming have an enormous backlog of needs and we ought to focus on allowing them to use those resources for the job creation and the economic diversification they need to do."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told tribal leaders the Indian Reservation Rural Economic Development Act, the Treatment of Indian Tribal Natural Resources Income Act and the Tribal Government Tax-Exempt Bond Authority Amendments Act introduced in Congress during the past several weeks will spur private investment on reservations and aid in diversification of the economy of tribal communities.
"It will promote business growth and job creation. By supporting these measures, we will be taking an important step toward strengthening the tribal economy and helping to bring new business opportunities to the reservations," Daschle said.
The bond authority amendments to the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 replace restrictions on the issuance of tax-exempt bonds by tribes and tribal entities. The move will allow tribes to issue bonds as states and cities do and apply the funds to economic development projects and empowerment zones.
Rep. John Thune, R-S.D., suggested that bridging the digital divide would pave the road for economic development in tribal communities.
"There is perhaps no greater way to better create jobs than through telecommunications and technology sources. We want to make sure technology is available to all."
Victor Runnels of the Oglala Sioux Tribe told Thune there was a need to spur further investment in marketing American Indian arts and elevating tourism on the reservation.
"We're Number 49 in tourism. Even North Dakota is ahead of us. Sixty-five to 70 percent of the people coming here want to learn about the Lakota. The Indian art economy of New Mexico is $2.5 billion a year business. I'm not greedy. I would settle for half," Runnels said.
"We've only scratched the surface when it comes to tourism and getting people out here," Thune said.
Tribal leaders spent much of their time networking and lobbying for an assortment of projects. Many of them said they discovered sources of funds they may have overlooked.
Winnebago Tribal Chairman John Black Hawk said he found the conference interesting and it allowed him to look at initiatives other tribes are using to help fuel economic growth.