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Inouye set to wire Indian country

WASHINGTON - Sen. Daniel Inouye may be leaving the vice chairmanship of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but that doesn't mean he plans to leave Indian nations behind. In fact, the Hawaiian Democrat promises to bring Indian country up to telecommunications speed during his new tenure on the Senate Commerce Committee.

As senior member of the Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee, "Oh, am I going to wire you people up," he promised the annual legislative conference of the National American Indian Housing Council here.

In fact, he plans to introduce a bill which would aid telecom infrastructure in tribal communities. This way, "thousands of Native Americans will no longer be denied access" to computers, the Internet, telephones, or communication satellites.

Just 68 percent of American Indian households have telephones, compared to 95 percent for the nation as a whole, the longstanding chairman or vice chair of the Indian Affairs Committee told the

NAIHC meeting.

Sen. Inouye also addressed trust and education issues during his address, as well as what he called "the quiet crisis" in Indian housing. "Let's make it a noisy crisis," he said.

The legislator deplored the fact that there are 90,000 homeless or underhoused Indian families, and that 30 percent of Indian housing is overcrowded and less than 50 percent of it is connected to a public sewer.

He also decried what he called an upcoming new tactic the Administration plans on its trust responsibility to tribes - a one on one negotiation with individual tribes, rather than the 556 tribes of Indian country as a whole.

He raised the specter of big government intimidating the smallest and least powerful Indian nations, and then using those unfair agreements as a template for dealing with the rest of Indian country.

"Picture the scenario. How many of you will have bargaining powers equal to the federal government," he asked the housing leaders. "Obviously this is an initiative that Indian country must examine closely."

Sen. Inouye advocated the establishment of an American Indian University, composed of but not limited to the current tribal colleges. "Many of you have been leery about this," he said, but he pointed to the example of Howard University, a Washington, D.C. institution traditionally catering to African American students.

The U.S. government invests $20,000 per student per year at Howard University, the senator said, and about a tenth of that at each tribal college.

"Why not go to an Indian medical school," he asked, one attuned to Indian health issues like glaucoma. Or, an Indian law school? "It's about time Indians learned the law about themselves," he said.

Sen. Inouye looked back to his 17 years as chair or vice chair of Indian Affairs, recalling suspicion back then that he would favor the interest of Native Hawaiians over Native Americans.

He acknowledged he understood their concerns. "You have been deceived, maligned and cheated for centuries," he told NAIHC.

The Indian housing leaders, perhaps anticipating they had just heard a valedictory address, gave the soft-spoken senator a rousing round of applause.