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Garcia delivers the State of Indian Nations address

WASHINGTON -- True to his long career as an engineer at Los Alamos National
Laboratory and to his self-declared preference for the technical detail of
policy-making and problem-solving, National Congress of American Indians
President Joe Garcia delivered a State of Indian Nations address that was
strong on solutions and easy on the understanding.

The San Juan Pueblo governor interpreted the four directions in terms of
traditional pueblo teachings and said all four must be faced for people and
communities to solve their problems. Then he drew a parallel between the
directions and "four great areas of challenge" facing Indian country. "And
we must meet each of them in order to move our nation forward."

But as if to acknowledge that the "powers" at the points of the compass
would remain metaphorical for many in the bailiwick of Washington
policy-making if not supported by information they can do something with,
Garcia offered detailed prescriptions for reform in Indian public safety,
health care, education and the economy, and settlement in the trust
management lawsuit known as Cobell v. Norton.

Many of the solutions he offered depend on funding infusions from federal
agencies. The Bush administration's federal budget request, made public
Feb. 6, is light on funding infusions for almost everyone, as the president
and Republican majorities in Congress seek to slow down a runaway federal
deficit.

For the fourth year now, the NCAI has followed the presidential State of
the Union address with an Indian nations equivalent. In three previous
years, NCAI, other Indians and Indian organizations, and their allies on
Capitol Hill and around Washington have prevailed on Congress, to restore
numerous funding cuts proposed in the president's budget requests.

Between hurricanes Katrina and Rita, jumped-up energy costs, the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, and the record federal deficit, it remains to be seen
whether Indian-specific funding freezes and rollbacks proposed by the
president for fiscal year 2007 will be restored by Congress to the same
degree as in the recent past. But Garcia's inaugural speech as the new NCAI
president, coupled with an Indian nations budget request released by NCAI
at the same time, gave every sign of being a good start in that direction.

Under public safety, Garcia highlighted problems with patrolling tribal
borders, protecting American Indian women from domestic violence, and
curbing the methamphetamine "poison" that plagues remote rural communities
in much of the nation.

"We want to do more," he said of tribal governments. "But we do not have
the means ... The remedy begins with more resources, but that is only part.
It also includes streamlining the system we use to get those resources."

The problems of border tribes touched a chord with Garcia, a native of the
Southwest. He described illegal immigrants as a "profound problem" on
tribal lands as many come with illicit motives, drug trafficking among
them. Crime rates increase, and in some communities people are apprehensive
of even going outside.

"This is unacceptable. We want to implement a long-term solution to the
problem that is more than simply stopping those we can catch and send back,
and letting the rest get through ... Federal policy requires tribal
governments to apply for Department of Homeland Security funding through
state and local governments. This does not work. I call for a direct line
between our tribes and Homeland Security in this matter."

Bush and Congress have weighed in against domestic violence by
reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, Garcia said. "We call upon
Congress to fully fund this life-saving legislation."

And against methamphetamines: "the answer is numbers. We need more officers
to fight back."

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He called for "increased manpower, realistic funding and improved
communication" to improve the overall public safety throughout Indian
country.

On the theme of health care, Garcia recited some of the dreadful statistics
that are fairly well-known, repeating the refrain of recent years on
comparative health care expenditures: America spends less than half on
Native people what it spends on federal prisoners.

"Because of this, I call upon Congress and the president to uphold their
historic and contractual obligation by reauthorizing the tribally proposed
Indian Health Care Improvement Act during this session of Congress. This
legislation is no less than the framework for the Indian health care
system. It will bring our outdated and inadequate system into the 21st
century, addressing mental health, substance abuse and youth suicide, and
support for attracting and retaining qualified health care professionals."

Basic in-home health care is becoming commonplace, he added. "But they are
not yet a common part of the system of Indian health care. They ought to
be."

A previous concerted push to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement
Act fell short in the 108th Congress, with former Republican Sen. Ben
Nighthorse Campbell, Northern Cheyenne, and the then-cabinet secretary of
Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson leading the initiative. In
fielding questions after the address, NCAI Executive Director Jackie
Johnson identified no particular Republican lawmakers as having stepped up
to restore the lost influence of Campbell and Thompson. But she named
enough supportive lawmakers to make it clear the reauthorization process
will have solid backing in the current 109th Congress.

On education and the economy -- or, more accurately, education as a pillar
of tribal economies -- Garcia again started off with the grim statistics:
half of all Indian high school students graduate, and 13 percent of
American Indians (half the national rate) hold higher education degrees.

Again, he said solutions are at hand with proper funding.

"We know from academic studies that Indian children flourish when their
classroom experiences are built on our tradition, language and our culture.
The No Child Left Behind Act allows for this kind of education, but the
resources to actually make it possible have yet to be appropriated ... In
1994, the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative began connecting students with
elders in the community and creating a passion for learning by showing
students how to explore science and history in light of their cultural
heritage. It worked. Over a 10-year period, student performance went up.
Test scores improved and dropout rates declined."

In the companion Indian programs budget released with Garcia's speech, NCAI
called for more congressional investment in language immersion programs,
specifically through a $6 million increase to the Administration for Native
Americans over and above its $3.9 million currently allocated for language
programs, "for a total language budget of $9.9 million."

At present, in conversation with ANA grantees at Fort Hall in Idaho and in
the speeches and commentary at an education conference at Wind River in
Wyoming, indications are that a groundswell of demand is growing for
Native-language immersion programs. Distance learning will be another
priority of Garcia's presidency.

Garcia's background includes national contributions to policy reform in
Indian housing, and he gave it full attention in the economic and education
section of his address. Native housing and Native homeownership are
actually on an improving curve after years of desperate conditions, though
great problems remain to be overcome. Garcia's speech implied that this is
no time to declare relative victory and abandon the robust funding that has
made dramatic improvement possible. In this connection, the NCAI FY '07
Indian country budget request calls for $4.6 million in funding to the
National American Indian Housing Council for training and technical
assistance around federal Indian block grant programs -- funding that would
restore FY '05 levels that were more than halved in FY '06.

Finally, on the trust management crisis at issue in the Cobell lawsuit,
Garcia called for a fair settlement negotiated in good faith, much sooner
than later. Speaking days after the Interior Department publicized its
decision to nick the BIA budget to comply with court orders to pay
attorneys' fees in the case, Garcia said the litigation "impedes our
progress as tribal governments on nearly all other issues."