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In Defense of Native 8(a) Programs

At stake was every Native 8(a) Program in the country, along with the economic activity they represented.

Native people have the highest percentage of service in the armed forces of any U.S. ethnic group. In fact, there are nearly 190,000 Native American military veterans, which is about 7 percent of the total Native American population alone. So we should be accustomed to being attacked. But by our own Congress? In 2011? Yes indeed, certain congressional representatives have us in their sights. Their tactic of choice is the legislative sneak attack—just as it was throughout congressional history.

In the fall of 2009, for example, during a Senate-House conference on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a battle got underway before the tribes were even aware they were the target. Senator Claire McCaskill air-dropped an amendment to that year’s defense authorization—Section 811—targeting only Native 8(a) Programs with new restrictions. This immediately and effectively put a damper on all economic development in Indian Country.

Once Native communities became aware of the problem, battle lines were drawn and Lower-48 tribes, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians joined forces. Then, the Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, joined up with Democratic McCaskill. Working together, the two senators introduced numerous amendments and bills in an attempt to further cripple Native 8(a) Programs. Tribes, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians responded with telephone calls, faxes, emails and letters to their own senators, expressing opposition to such legislation.


At stake was every Native 8(a) Program in the country, along with the economic activity they represented. Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs), and Native Hawaiian Organizations (NHOs) represent entire communities of disadvantaged individuals and are responsible for providing benefits to their members in perpetuity. Native 8(a)s create jobs in all 50 states, hiring locally and stimulating locally economies, in a time of high unemployment through innovation and quality past performance. Despite this, there have been numerous attempts to modify or all together do away with the Native 8(a) program. Because we stood united in our message, these bills and amendments did not get through. All of this occurred out of the sight of most Americans, as there was little media coverage.

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The fight isn’t over though. McCaskill and McCain tried again this year, via the 2012 NDAA currently in Congress. Fortunately, through efforts of tribal leaders nationwide and Congressional allies, we eliminated the two senators’ damaging amendments. We can all appreciate the hard work of our brothers and sisters who lead Native communities around the country and of our friends in Congress; they have once again deflected a serious attack on our economic future.

What is most amazing is that 8a Native Programs truly work to build self-sufficiency for our Native peoples. Yet this is what they want to take away. Why? I’d say it’s because our Native companies have started to see success through this program, and we are now a real threat to some non-Native government contracting businesses. These businesses are under the protection of some very powerful politicians, to whom they make contributions.

How did I come to this conclusion? It is a fact; the non-Native government-contracting program doing business with the federal government is, and long has been, rife with fraud, waste and abuse, as documented by a host of reports, lawsuits and criminal proceedings. Big contractors have even been fined—but that’s all—for giving away our military secrets! Politicians are obviously bent on not just ignoring wrongdoing, but on helping out these favored non-Native contractors/contributors.

There has been significant scrutiny of the entire Native 8(a) Program over the last few years, and many attacks have been waged to severely restrict or even end the program. It is critical that we Native people actively support the Native 8(a) Program and continue our fight for justice and the equal opportunity to pursue economic development in government contracting and other areas of commerce. We cannot afford to allow special-interest groups and a few politicians eager for campaign contributions to push us back down the economic ladder we have struggled so hard to climb.

We must remain vigilant and be alert for any legislation that would adversely affect our sovereignty and treaty rights, if enacted. We must oppose each and every damaging legislative action, whether it affects all tribes or even just one Native community.

Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.