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Let's not forget who we are

All of us have responded emotionally and intellectually to the events of Sept. 11, and the following two months.

The acts themselves are incomprehensible to many. For all, the sense of safety in our daily lives may be gone forever. But however we responded initially and continue to respond, we must not forget who we are ? Indian peoples ? and how our view of life and community can be a great support to the rest of society in these trying times.

We have always understood clearly that community is critical for the survival of the individual. Outside of the Indian cultural milieu, the individual has been too much emphasized for economic advancement. A sense of balance and proportion has been lacking, where the good ideas and actions of individuals always come back to enrich one's neighbors. And the community, in turn, supports the individual.

America once had a much greater understanding of this. It is sad that it has taken such horrible acts to shock us back into remembering what really is important. But even in the midst of this national mourning and recovery, we must realize that a key part of what is happening is a battle between privileges and rights. The same old way of doing business dares to reassert its will, pitting privileges of individuals and small groups, against the rights of society.

Sept. 11 fell like a sledgehammer on an already weakened economy. The people looked toward its government for leadership and bipartisanship. Unfortunately, the current stimulus discussion in Congress seems to be more about privileges, and little about basic human rights. The early spirit of bipartisanship is coming apart at the seams. It seems as if both political parties decided to sit down and craft a version of an economic stimulus package that would remind the voters of their worst qualities.

Only 30 percent of the tax cuts in the House version will go to individuals; the rest will go to quite healthy companies such as General Electric (a $671 million rebate) and IBM (a $1.4 billion rebate) via repeal of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

The Senate version has many positive features, such as giving tax rebates to those who didn't get one last time around, a subsidy to workers laid off after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, etc. It is laden, however, with typical pork barrel projects that have nothing to do with real needs, nor will it stimulate the economy. Many analysts say that even the money earmarked for "homeland security" won't get there, and certainly won't help revive the economy.

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The second stimulus law being considered almost doubles the size of the Bush tax cuts enacted last May. About 41 percent of these proposed tax cuts would go to the richest 1 percent. Only 7 percent would go to the bottom three-fifths of taxpayers.

The global income has quintupled in the last 50 years. Yet two billion people or one-third of the world population live in chronic poverty and disenfranchisement. Fifty years ago the richest 20 percent of the population owned 30 times more than the poor. Today they own 80 times more.

In our country, we have seen real cuts in programs for poor and working class people for the last 20 years. Despite huge overall economic growth, close to a real doubling of our GDP, cuts in unemployment insurance, Social Security, disability benefits, food stamps, housing assistance ? the so-called "safety net" ? were accelerated and deep.

All this came before Sept. 11. The economic slowdown has continued, with 1 million layoffs projected by the end of the year. Right now, with big gaps for low-wage workers, part time workers and those with frequent breaks in work history, our unemployment system reaches fewer than 40 percent of newly unemployed. Only 18 percent of those making less than $8.50 per hour get unemployment when laid off.

Where does all this leave us?

We need to use Indian understanding about culture and community in these difficult times. Central to our community fabric is that any battle between rights and privileges be superseded by our ethic of mutuality. Privileges within society cannot be wrought at the expense of basic essential rights for all.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, inequality will likely increase, driving the poverty level exponentially. If we let it!

Democracy must not retreat, rather it should proceed to awaken feelings of solidarity based upon compassion, diversity and respect. Linked by the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things, there exists a mutuality of obligation. Native spirituality teaches that one's vision provides purpose and meaning. In this case our vision is our survival. Whatever economic advance takes place, all must participate. We are all related.