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Hall: Stand united for 8(a)

Some in Congress are engaged in a full frontal assault on Indian country by advancing legislation that would limit, or eliminate altogether, the participation of Alaska Native Corporations and Indian tribes in the Small Business Administration 8(a) program. ANCs, congressionally established through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, have the same responsibilities as tribal corporations - to advance the social and economic well being of our people.

Section 8(a) of the Small Business Act gives socially and economically disadvantaged firms a chance to grow and perform on federal government contracts. Tribal participation in the 8(a) program is one of the most important non-gaming economic development tools available to our federally recognized governments and corporations. In fact, 8(a) government contracting is one of our best hopes in Indian country in terms of revenue and job creation across the country.

We are in danger of losing the tribal/ANC 8(a) program, just as we begin to participate, just as we begin to succeed. The House of Representatives has already taken action on legislation that would limit the size of contracts that the government can award to tribes and ANCs. The bill has now moved to the Senate, where it sits before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, chaired by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

During House consideration, Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., expressed dismay that federal contracting dollars to tribal/ANC 8(a)s have increased from $265 million to more than $1 billion in recent years. This statistic brings our collective participation to less than 1 percent of all federal contracts. If there is any dismay, it should be that we are not posting higher numbers. Worse, Waxman has suggested that while the goal of including ANCs in the 8(a) program is ''worthy,'' these firms are now operating outside of Alaska. We have to be concerned when a policy-maker advances the notion that Indian business is only good if Indians stay on the ''rez.''

We know this view well - every time we make progress as Indian communities, it becomes a problem. I doubt many policy-makers would suggest that economic participation for other constituencies should only be allowed if they agree to stay in their neighborhoods. The fact is, strong Native businesses are good for all of America - we must not accept any limitation of our business opportunities to a specific geography. Those days are gone and must remain in our country's past.

Tribal/ANC 8(a)s have created more than 31,000 jobs across the country, and we will do as we have always done - we will take the long view of seven generations, and embrace the tool of business as something that builds the well-being of our communities, our neighbors and our fellow American citizens.

The tribal/ANC 8(a) program is working precisely as Congress originally intended. Native enterprises are growing their government contracting capabilities, providing reliable and high-quality services. At the same time, these enterprises are rebuilding our communities and investing millions of dollars into schools, scholarships and a host of cultural and social programs. The success of this business development program is just starting to take root, but we still have a long way to go.

Although the recent attacks have been aimed at our Alaska Native brothers and sisters, make no mistake: they are attacks on tribes and all Indian people. As our collective history has shown, when termination policies come for one, they come for all.

Indian country: We must not sleep. We must unify to protect our full participation in the 8(a) program. I urge Indian leaders all across the country to contact your congressmen and tell them ''no,'' Congress must not restrict our participation in 8(a) contracting.

Tex G. Hall is the chairman of the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance, a national nonprofit promoting economic development in rural American Indian reservations, Alaska Native villages and Hawaiian home lands. He is the former president of the National Congress of American Indians and the former tribal chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota.