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NCAI President Tex Hall asks cooperation for Indian country

WASHINGTON - The president of the National Congress of American Indians recently turned the nation's attention toward Indian country with a State of American Indian Nations Address.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan or the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota and the president of NCAI, offered a list of issues paramount in the minds of the tribal leadership as an informative adgenda to which the President, Congress and the American people can join in cooperation and help resolve the problems affecting Indian country.

"Mr. President, members of Congress and neighbors in this great land we share, American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments look forward to working with you to ensure our mutual strength and well-being as a nation," Hall said at the National Press Club.

Much of what Hall said has been heard before by tribal leaders, members of Congress during hearings and people who do support the efforts of Indian country. But for the first time, an address was directed at President George W. Bush and Congress with the intent of encouraging cooperation and a partnership that is constitutionally written between the federal government and tribal nations.

Hall repeated the oft spoken message that most of America does not possess enough knowledge of American Indians to be able to separate fact from fiction and the reality of the stereotype. Because the truth lies somewhere between the romanticized image and the contemporary reality of the American Indian is the reason for Hall's speech to the nation.

He touched on many of the major issues that face Indian country. First, the fact that American Indian tribes are independent, self-governing entities and must continue economic development to reduce unemployment with health, education and general well-being of the tribal nations rounding out Hall's agenda.

Trust reform, which has captured headlines over the past seven years, held a key position with Hall. Because negotiations have broken down and a class action lawsuit is in progress, tribal leaders and federal officials have tried to work together to create a reform package, but a walkout by the government and the presentation of a plan not accepted by tribal leaders shows a lack of cooperation.

"When these lands were taken from tribes, the U.S. gave its solemn promise to protect the rights of tribes to govern themselves, and to provide for the health, education, and well being of tribes.

"That commitment, the trust responsibility is not a hand-out, but a contract and that contract has been broken time and again by the federal government. It is time for the U.S. to honor those promises," Hall said.

"The Indian wars are long over. We have many friends throughout this nation. We pray that our friends will not be silent as year after year this trust continues to be ignored and eroded. Mr. President, we know that your burdens are many, but we ask that among them you defend the integrity and honor of this Nation, make good its word - affirm the U.S. treaty promises to tribes.

"Restore that trust for the sake of the future of Indian people and for the sake of our nation's soul."

The mismanaged trust accounts amount to billions of dollars in lost money to tribal members who have grazing land, oil and gas resources and tillable acreages that are leased. Because of the mismanagement Hall reminded his audience, the money that belongs to the tribal members, not the taxpayers, has not been distributed in a timely nor an equitable manner for many years.

He asked that trust reform take a priority with the Bush administration. Just days following his speech, the Department of Interior announced that President Bush submitted a $2.31 billion budget for fiscal year 2004 that is $62 million more than the fiscal year 2003 budget. The increase was included to assist in the improvement of the IIM account trust asset management.

"With this budget request, the President makes clear his firm commitment to improving the lives of Indian people through trust reform, education and economic development," said acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Aurene M. Martin.

The budget included $32 million to modernize information technology systems and $13 million to expand a pilot program to reduce the fractionalization of individual Indian land ownership interests. Another $7.6 million will enhance resource management programs related to trust reform, the BIA states.

"The problems we face in this arena rest squarely in antiquated thinking that Indian country need not be at the table when decisions are made impacting Indian lives. We must move beyond that old way of thinking if we are to solve this crisis.

He said that past attempts at reform have failed because they lacked accountability and oversight by an independent body with power to act when the standards were not met.

"It is time to do what is right and accept the fiscal responsibility for fixing this problem that has been so many years in the making before more damage is done," he said.

Hall proposed a two-day summit between tribal leaders and the Bush Administration and Congress for the purpose of building on what has already taken place in the Tribal Leaders and Government Trust Reform Task Force to develop a "concrete map" on how to proceed toward fixing the problem.

"The piecemeal Indian country development efforts of the past have been mere Band-Aids for a seriously suffering sector of the economy. We need a strong, coordinated, creative, comprehensive plan to truly bolster our economies."

Hall said due to 80 percent unemployment in some communities there is no group of people with a more urgent economic crisis than American Indians.

Jobs are hard to find on reservations like the Navajo, Hopi, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock, Northern Cheyenne, Fort Belknap and many others and much of it is due to lack of funding for infrastructure and loans for business development.

Although funding comes from Congress, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said that budgets were tight and it was unlikely that enough funding would be available in the future to cover all the needs of Indian country, even though the senate committee and other congressional members were supportive and would fight for every amount possible.

Hall said the goal was to create 100,000 jobs in Indian country by 2010, and invited the administration and the Congress to help in that effort.

The infrastructure problem, another addressed by Hall, covers roads, communications and water resources. The lack of development on the reservations was blamed mostly on these factors.

"While states spend an average of $4,000 to $5,000 per mile for road maintenance annually, the federal government spends $500 per mile for roads in Indian country.

"The disparity adds up to a massive barrier to economic development with many tribes lacking any way to transport the employees, customers and goods that fuel healthy economies," Hall said.

The third major issue in Indian country includes health and education. Diabetes and lower life expectancy are hard and cold statistics that need attention, Hall stated.

"These are lives, our children, our parents, our wives and husbands, not statistics to us."

The budget submitted to cover health care for Indian country is far less than the need. Hall said that construction of new facilities would exceed $1 billion and the backlog for maintaining existing facilities is more than $500 million. He asked for a strong federal commitment to make good on "old promises to provide resources for services, prevention programs and health care facilities."

In his message, he encouraged Congress to pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization and fully fund the programs.

Other expenses are within the education system. Schools have exposed asbestos, leaky roofs, lack of electricity and even telephone lines, Hall said. The BIA operates 185 schools in its system with some 48,000 students. And of the 185 schools, seven are slated for replacement in the fiscal year 2004 budget with $131 million allocated for that purpose. For construction and repair $292 million is written into the fiscal year 2004 budget.

Yet with that amount, there will still be a shortfall.

"These dollars are precious few. The BIA schools are allotted just over $3,000 for each student annually. That is less than half of what other public schools spend on average per student. How can we recruit and retain quality teachers under such conditions?"

Even under adverse conditions, tribes have been taking over their children's education and contracted to control the schools. Culture has become an integral part of the education program and improvements have been seen. Hall related that many students continue on with their education to become doctors and lawyers, teachers, scientists, journalists, political candidates and politicians. But still some 50 percent of American Indian students never finish high school and in some parts of the country the drop out rate is 90 percent he said.

Hall invited the President and the First Lady to visit a reservation school to see first hand the obstacles standing between students and a good education.

And as to homeland security, Hall said that Indian country was left out in the planning and that leaves many thousands of miles of international borders unprotected. With lack of security, natural resources and power lines that cross reservations remain vulnerable.

"Without full participatory rights for tribal governments, a national homeland security strategy is incomplete."

Hall's speech was an invitation for Congress as a whole to join in assisting Indian country with many of the issues it has faced while listening to what the tribal leaders offered as possible solutions.

"Our tribe's cultural traditions and unique ways of life remain a deep thread through our daily life. But our generation of leadership is charged with leading our people into an entirely new era with our core life ways intact, recognizing that the contexts of our lives have changed in some ways from those of our ancestors, just as most Americans live very differently than their grandparents did," Hall said.