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Indian leaders address Obama’s budget

WASHINGTON – Indian leaders are increasingly weighing in on President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for 2011. A general sense of satisfaction is in the air – especially given an overall federal focus to clamp down on spending – although desired areas for improvement are becoming clear.

Soon after the president released his proposed budget the week of Feb. 1, it was apparent that the administration plans to maintain and strengthen support for a variety of Indian country programs.

Jefferson Keel, National Congress of American Indians president and Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, hit that point home in testimony Feb. 25 at an oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“Last year, for FY 2010, Congress enacted historic increases to important programs that are essential to tribes, especially during this time of economic recession,” Keel said.

“NCAI applauds the administration’s proposals for FY 2011 to continue to make investments in Indian health, tribal public safety, environmental protection programs, and self-determination contract support costs and administrative cost grants.”

Keel said NCAI wants to work with members of the committee to strengthen investments in other areas, including education, natural resources, housing and energy development programs.

He also noted that core tribal governmental services have suffered severe underfunding for decades.

Along those lines, Patricia Whitefoot, National Indian Education Association president, said in testimony before the committee that Native American education faces enormous challenges, including drastic federal underfunding.

To help address the problem, she urged the committee to support the creation of an assistant secretary of Indian education at the Department of Education. Increased funding for language and other Indian-focused education programs were also highlighted.

Marty Shuravloff, National American Indian Housing Council chairman, raised substantial concerns with the proposed budget, noting that if Congress accepts the proposal, “it would be the lowest, single-year funding level for the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act since it was enacted in 1996.”

“To put this in proper context, funding appropriated by Congress in FY 1998 – 12 years ago – was $20 million more than the president’s budget request for FY 2011.”

Despite the concerns, Shuravloff said the organization was encouraged by administration proposals to increase the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s coordination with Indian communities.

In a joint release from NCAI, NAIHC, and the National Indian Health Board, issued March 2, strengthening the national economy was highlighted as a top reason for increased federal support.

“Indian country is a critical player as the U.S. considers ways to promote jobs and work toward economic recovery,” the release said. “When tribes have the necessary tools to exercise their inherent right of self-government, the results include strides toward improving the health, social and economic well-being of Indian country, non-Native citizens residing on reservations and off-reservation residents of neighboring communities.”