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New Mexico’s Al Kissling pledges to work with tribes

LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Al Kissling, the Democratic candidate in New Mexico’s 2nd district against the Republican incumbent in the House of Representatives, Rep. Steve Pearce, is running well behind in most polls. But there’s plenty of time between now and election night; and in a district where Indian voters are numerous enough to make a difference, Kissling has developed a head for Indian affairs that could serve him well come November. He has made education and health care the centerpieces of his campaign, including funding for American Indian health care clinics and the Head Start program – “which to me is a critical need, all over the country, but also specifically on the Native American reservations and pueblos.”

As a retired Presbyterian pastor, Kissling had served congregations from Berkeley, Calif., to Arkansas and North Carolina by the time he took an interim post in Gallup. Gallup may not have entirely shed its reputation as a border town haunt for Indians who drink too much. But Kissling said that after spending the year 2000 in Gallup, he had encountered exactly one liquored-up pedestrian. “I’m sure there were more. But I lived right behind the courthouse, and I walked downtown almost daily. And so I can say that the reputation of Gallup has not been lived up to.”

What stood out much more in Gallup was diabetes among Navajos. A member of his congregation was in the prosthesis business. “And he was dealing constantly with Native Americans who were losing a limb because of diabetic condition. ... I became very aware of how important health issues are on the reservation.”

If elected, Kissling said he will categorically support reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a measure tribes have been pushing in Congress for six years. Provisions supporting improved care for diabetics are a leading reason tribes have made the reauthorization a priority.

Kissling’s purpose in Gallup was to establish a Habitat for Humanity chapter that gave him some familiarity with Navajo housing needs. But he also answered a call for substitute teachers in the Gallup schools. The experience helped to confirm his view that classroom teachers need the resources to do their jobs right. “One of the things that is a great concern of mine is that we strengthen the teachers in the classroom as they strive to teach the children, and we provide resourcing for them. That’s my concern across the board, and that would include schools that are having Native American students. I think it’s important also that there be programs, if not classes, that promote the Native American culture in those schools, not just for Native American students but for all the students, that they have a better understanding of some of the Native American customs and culture, for general understanding of our country.”

That understanding must include tribal sovereignty, in Kissling’s view. “I feel strongly, that Native Americans have not been fairly dealt with, and we need to be respecting that they were the first citizens and we are the immigrants – communicating as government-to-government on a lot of these issues.”

Among those issues would be Section 1813 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The section authorized a study of tribal energy rights of way that will be finalized for Congress by the end of September. Many tribes have been vocal about their concern that Congress may seize upon the study to infringe on sovereignty by modifying the current law that requires tribal consent in rights of way decisions on tribal lands. Kissling was all over the issue. “I believe that we need to respect that sovereignty and negotiate with them and not allow the corporations to dictate terms for their benefit, but look at what is good for the tribe as we deal with them on that issue.”

Federal impact aid funding, directed to schools that are located on federal lands and so lacking a tax base, should also be administered in light of tribal sovereignty, Kissling said. “That impact aid ought to be going directly to the tribes and not having to go through state education boards and be cut up in different ways, but ought to be designated to the tribes direct, as a nation would to another nation.”

Similarly, he believes that Homeland Security personnel have been “shortchanged.” Tribes that are helping to secure national borders, that are being relied upon as early responders to security threats, should receive direct federal funding. “That ought to be negotiated direct with the tribe. It ought to go to the tribe and not through the state, and we need to respect that sovereignty in terms of the tribe being a[n] equal partner in consultation and not someone that’s dictated to.”

Veterans are also being shortchanged in the current federal budget, Kissling said, including American Indian veterans. “I would be very concerned to see that promises made were promises kept ... ‘no vet left behind.’ We need to get serious about keeping promises made to vets and seeing that they are honored not just in name, but in deed ... I will be concerned to vote to support all veterans, but specifically to honor Native American veterans who have served a country so faithfully.”

Though retired, Kissling retains the rights and authorities of a Presbyterian pastor. But he has enough respect for Native spirituality and other beliefs not to impose his own brand of faith from Capitol Hill.

Overall, Kissling pledged himself to be a strong voice for American Indians on Capitol Hill. If elected, he said he’ll hire an American Indian on his Washington staff, as well as posting one in New Mexico as a liaison with tribes on their local issues. “I will be saying to my fellow congressmen and congresswomen, ‘Folks, we need to get into the 21st century and begin to deal with these people in terms of their 19th century treaties, and honoring them.’ And that’s the way we’ll have respect for both groups, and people will begin to have respect for Congress as we uphold treaties that have been made in the past, and then forgotten by future Congresses. ... I understand sovereignty, and it needs to be respected; and we need to begin to relate to the Native American community, whether it be a tribe or a pueblo or whatever, in terms of consultation as government-to-government, and not be assuming and imposing.”