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Kerry makes whistle-stop pledges to Southwest

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. could barely
contain his enthusiasm the night of Aug. 8 as he bounded to the stage
during Sen. John Kerry's whistle-stop train tour of the Southwest.

"All the time that Native Americans have been sitting on the back burner,"
Shirley exclaimed to the crowd of 5,000 in Flagstaff's central Heritage
Square. "Well, there will be no more of that with John Kerry.

"He has promised that all Native Americans will sit at the table to discuss
the challenges facing us now. I endorse John Kerry," Shirley said.

While handlers of President Bush spent their week trying to put the best
face on his puzzling comments about tribal sovereignty, Kerry was feeling
the love of tribes in northern New Mexico and Arizona.

After appearing at the closing ceremonies of the annual Inter-Tribal
Ceremonial in Gallup, N.M., Kerry promised that he would pick an American
Indian as a liaison to the White House if he is elected. He decried that
there was no open door at the White House for American Indian concerns.

He then took a three-hour train ride across northern Arizona, skirting the
southern boundary of the Navajo Nation, with Shirley, White Mountain Apache
Chairman Dallas Massey and other tribal leaders in tow.

"We had a great meeting," Kerry said during his Flagstaff speech. "If
anything represents the fallen agenda [of Bush], it's what is happening to
Native Americans still. One-third of them have no health insurance and more
money is spent on federal prisoners' insurance than theirs. When I am
elected president, that will change."

In a position paper on American Indian affairs released Aug. 8 by his
campaign staff, Kerry vowed to:

Strengthen the government-to-government relationship by regular
consultation with tribes and to develop regulatory practices that affect
Indian communities. He also said he would continue efforts to have
"meaningful and accountable trust reform."

Increase funding by an undetermined amount for Indian Health Service, which
Kerry described as being "severely underfunded." He also said that he would
direct efforts to make sure that all those who are eligible for Medicaid
are enrolled and making sure that medical-care providers participate in
insurance programs on reservations, where the life expectancy is only 55.

Work toward increased funding for road maintenance on reservations, noting
that only one-tenth of the money is spent on reservations as off
reservations for highway repairs.

Increase loans by an unspecified amount to Indian-owned small businesses
through the Small Business Administration. Kerry previously had
co-sponsored legislation to create a new grant program for American Indian
businesses.

Try to catch up with an estimated $2 billion in repairs for BIA schools
while improving the reading ability of children.

Give tribes equal footing with state and local governments in the area of
homeland security. Kerry said he would create an American Indian position
in the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that tribal governments
are represented.

Fund an office at the Department of Energy specifically for Indian country
and to explore alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power.
Currently, about 15 percent of reservation households do not have
electricity.

Tribes throughout the country have had to dig into their own pockets in
recent years to provide essential services like law enforcement.

Massey said those kinds of frustrations were expressed to Kerry during the
train ride. The White Mountain Apache tribal council earlier had endorsed
Kerry for president.

Typically, between 80 and 90 percent of American Indians have supported
Democratic presidential candidates in the past. And, while some Republicans
like Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona appear to be making inroads among Indian
voters in congressional races, the percentage voting for Kerry for
president is expected to be about the same.

"Bush is not popular on the reservation," said Navajo County Supervisor
Percy Deal of Hardrock, Ariz. "Kerry's visit is very important to us and he
won't have any problem winning overwhelmingly on the reservations."