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Edwards develops Native policy

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NEW YORK - Indian issues came late to the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John Edwards, but he has now issued a detailed Native platform in his attempt to slow the juggernaut of U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

The North Carolina Democrat has posted a 12-part program on his Web site with some subtle differences in emphasis from the comprehensive agenda that Massachusetts Democrat Kerry issued at the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians last November. Although both advocate help for Indian small businesses, Edwards gives more legislative details for increasing capital flows to reservations. Both support tribal sovereignty, but Kerry emphasizes the theme more heavily, in particular stressing the "government-to-government relationship" and calling for tribal equal treatment in Homeland Security.

Edwards has also come on board the major federal recognition struggle in his home state, co-sponsoring the Lumbee recognition bill introduced by his junior senator, Republican Elizabeth Dole.

Both Kerry and Edwards have so far dodged the hot Indian issues in the Super Tuesday states holding primaries March 2. They have not answered questionnaires from Indian Country Today about recognition of Connecticut tribes, state taxation of New York reservations or revenue sharing by California Indian casinos.

But with the posting of Edwards' platform, called "New Opportunities for Native Americans," the two serious potential Democratic nominees have staked their ground to battle the Bush Administration's performance on Indian issues in the general election.

The Edwards program for "investing in Indian country" promises to create five million new jobs in two years and bring venture capital to small businesses. His mix of new and existing programs mirrors a primary theme of his campaign, rural development. He calls for a Rural Economic Advancement Challenge (REACH) Fund to "bring investors together with entrepreneurs on reservations, offer training and support to small businesses, and put businesses into networks to help them succeed together."

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He also advocates a new round of the New Markets Tax Credits program, (NMTC), which offers tax breaks to private investors based on their commitment to creating jobs and business opportunities in disadvantaged communities. "Each dollar of federal investment is matched by more than three dollars of private investment," he said, "and will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. He also calls for doubling of funding for the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), a U.S. Treasury supported program for channeling small-scale lending to reservations. These CDFIs, he said, have made over $1 million in loans for small businesses and micro enterprises and have created or retained 38,000 jobs. Edwards specifically cited the Lakota Fund.

Edwards also made a blunt endorsement of Indian gaming, a lightning-rod issue that Kerry sidestepped in his program. Under the heading "Respect Native American Gaming," he wrote, "Gaming has proven an important way for many tribes to create economic opportunity and jobs. When there are conflicts with states over gaming revenues, those conflicts must be resolved based on respect and consultation. When tribes negotiate a revenue sharing agreement, they should have a say in how those revenues are allocated."

Like Sen. Kerry, Sen. Edwards is urging infrastructure improvements on reservations as an important element of economic development. He called for adequate funding for the Native American Reservation Roads Program, "where 33,000 miles of reservation roads are unpaved and have a fatality rate four times the national average."

Both Kerry and Edwards urged improved funding for Indian health care and strengthened educational systems. Edwards advocated a College for Everyone plan with free tuition for one year of public university or community college. Kerry specifically supported increased funding for tribal colleges.

As North Carolina Senator for six years, Edwards represented a tribe involved in what could be the longest-running and most frustrated recognition struggles in the country. The Lumbee people, concentrated in Robeson County in southeast North Carolina, claim more than 55,000 members, making them the largest U.S. Indian population without full federal acknowledgement. But the real champion of their cause in Congress is clearly U. S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R. -N.C., elected in 2002. Dole, wife of the former Republican presidential nominee and U.S. Senator Robert Dole, introduced the Lumbee Acknowledgement Act as her first piece of legislation. After the bill won approval from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at the end of October 2003, Edwards joined as one of 15 co-sponsors.

Congress passed a bill giving the Lumbee partial federal recognition in 1956, but the same measure denied them access to federal programs. In recent years the tribe faced stubborn opposition from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, R. - N.C., and according to many reports from the Eastern Cherokee, the state's one federally recognized tribe. An aide to Sen. Dole said she hopes to move the bill to a Senate vote this session, although "small pockets of resistance remain" and Senate floor time will be limited during the election year.

Although Native voters are unlikely to have the swing potential in coming primaries that they held in the Feb. 3 Indian Super Tuesday states in the southwest, both California and New York have the largest concentrations of urban Indians in the country. According to the 2,000 Census, 627,562 Californians identified themselves as at least part Indian, as did 171,581 New Yorkers, or about 1 percent of both state populations. The highest concentration comes in Minnesota, holding party caucuses, which reports 81,074 self-identified Indians, or 1.4 percent of the state population.