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Members of Congress and tribes share priorities

WASHINGTON - As August comes to Washington, Congress is in high gear trying to complete work on legislation before the long recess.

Part of that work includes tribal-related legislation and appropriations bills. Throughout the summer tribal leaders and members of Congress have met on a number of issues, some dealing with local concerns, while others impacted tribes on a national level. What has emerged as Congress prepares for its recess is a growing connecting and understanding of tribal issues by Congressional members.

"From day one I have always felt that, notwithstanding the good intentions and the good heart of many of us in Washington, laws that are made in Washington by Washingtonians for Indians in Indian country somehow do not work," said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"Therefore we have been following a much simpler formula, laws made by Indians in Indian country."

The committee held consultation meetings in the Pacific Northwest and southern California, as well as five hearings here in the capital to gather priority issues determined by the tribes themselves. Chairman Inouye and members of the committee said they feel it is an effective tool and could be used by other congressional members and the administration.

"Let me assure you that before we are through, we plan to have heard from all the tribal governments of this land," Inouye said. "In addition to the publication of the hearings, we are developing a compendium of the issues that the tribes have identified as priorities for legislative action."

Many others in Congress have taken notice and charted a legislative course more in line with the thinking of tribes. This includes members from both the House and the Senate and from both parties. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the House Native American Caucus have both been clearinghouses for information on tribes and tribal issues. However, the more focused efforts by tribes and tribal organizations to educate congressional members has broadened the knowledge base.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, is one example. While he has no federally recognized tribes in his state, he has connected with tribal governments in a number of areas. Rahall says that being from West Virginia he is familiar with the problems of poverty, high rates of unemployment, inaccessible health care, inadequate education, and other problems also found in many American Indian communities.

"That is why I have worked on dozens of bills to help Indian country during my tenure in Congress," Rahall said. "Make no mistake about it, I plan to use my new position as the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Resources to continue to support the causes important to Native Americans, and to promote and respect tribal sovereignty."

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a powerful figure in the Senate and part of the Republican leadership, says America needs to take notice of what tribes are doing for themselves and the larger economy. He says more members of Congress should get involved and support tribes and tribal sovereignty like he and a few others, members from both sides of the aisle.

"We have to help you move in areas that you want to move your people," Domenici said. "I understand the issue of sovereignty. I probably understand it as well as anyone. If we pick some very important issues and decide we're going to get them done, we're not going to find the Indian Committee a partisan committee. I mean, you'll find Sen. Domenici up there advocating as many things as any of the Democrats on the other side of the podiums."

Issues marked as legislative priorities this session by both tribes and members of Congress include: federal appropriations, education, health care, welfare reform, gaming and economic development, and energy issues.

Once Congress returns from the August recess it will be facing deadlines for appropriations bills and important laws up for reauthorization, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Welfare Reform.