Fuel assistance program kicks off

AKWESASNE, N.Y. – Representatives from several tribes recently joined CITGO Petroleum Corp. officials in Akwesasne to celebrate the relationship that will help heat the homes of thousands of tribal members throughout Indian country this winter. CITGO, a Venezuelan oil company, has expanded its fuel assistance program this year to include 163 tribes.

The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in northern New York state hosted a reception and dinner on Nov. 27 to help CITGO kick off its relationship with Indian tribes. CITGO President and CEO Felix Rodriguez joined tribal leaders from Minnesota, New York and Maine to discuss the program’s benefits and mark the beginning of a new relationship.

“Our communities needed help and CITGO has certainly stepped to the plate,” said SRMT Chief James Ransom.

The CITGO/Venezuela Heating Oil Program was initiated in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. The natural disaster prompted CITGO to provide millions of gallons of discounted fuel to low-income communities around the United States. A small number of Native tribes participated, but this year CITGO has made extra efforts to include Indian country.

For tribes, CITGO altered the way in which the fuel was distributed. At Akwesasne, CITGO allocated 500,000 gallons of free fuel for the tribe to distribute as needed. The tribe in turn told its membership that each home within their jurisdiction would be eligible to receive 200 gallons of fuel at no cost to them.

“We view it as a hand up for our community, not a hand out,” said Ransom.

Also present during the reception were representatives from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes of Maine, as well as the White Earth Band of Chippewa in Minnesota. The Maine tribes are participating in the program for the second time.

Chief Erma Vizenor, of the White Earth Band in Minnesota, said her community is economically depressed and that participation in the program was a necessity.

“We have many people who are needy,” she said.

Of the 163 tribes participating in the program this year, 151 are in Alaska.

Earlier this fall, a handful of Alaska Native groups made headlines when they reportedly declined to participate in the program, reflecting a decision by many Americans to boycott CITGO after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called President George Bush “the devil.”

Chief Kirk Francis Sr., of Maine’s Penobscot Tribe, defended the program and the decisions of Native communities to participate.

“As tribal leaders, we really have a responsibility to think about the health and benefit of our people,” Francis said during a press conference in Akwesasne. “We don’t even begin to try and understand the political differences between these two administrations.”

Other tribal leaders present agreed, noting that the CITGO program is not a “political event.”

“It’s about mutual respect for nation-to-nation dialogue,” said Rick Doyle, governor of the Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine. “The decisions of other tribes are their own. For us, it was an easy decision that our people need help.”

Rodriguez also defended his company’s intentions.

“This is a humanitarian project, this is not a political program,” Rodriguez said. “It’s an opportunity to show what kind of company CITGO is.”

Asked if the program will continue in the future, Rodriguez said he thinks it will.

“Particularly for me it’s a great opportunity because my heart feels more happy,” he said.

During the reception, Rodriguez was showered with gifts from tribal leaders. From the White Earth Band a traditional blanket was presented, and from Mohawk leaders Rodriguez received sweetgrass baskets and cornhusk dolls – two items symbolic of Iroquois culture.

The CITGO fuel assistance program is especially directed at communities facing harsh winters, such as those in Alaska and states along the U.S./Canada border.

In Akwesasne, fuel deliveries began on Nov. 17 and hundreds of individuals have already signed up.

“We are already getting very positive feedback from the community,” said SRMT Chief Barbara Lazore. “In our culture, we express our thanks year round for what sustains us. But today, we are glad to be working with CITGO and especially thankful to them for helping us help our families with heat this winter.”