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Oklahoma tribes set sights on funds

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With $2.8 billion earmarked for Indian country through the Obama administration’s recent stimulus package, several Oklahoma tribes are hoping to see some of the funds spent in their jurisdictions. Accessing those funds is important, but Oklahoma’s 37 tribes are just one portion of Indian country, the state’s tribal leaders said.

The money, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will go to health services, education, housing and other Indian programs and their funding agencies. The funding boost for Indian country means tribes need to be proactive in getting the money to their area, said Jeff Houser, chairman of the 600-member Fort Sill Apaches.

“We haven’t done anything yet, but we hope to be able to get some of the monies, because if it’s there, we can use it.” Houser said.

Jim Gray, principal chief of the 10,000-member Osage Nation, said his tribe has a committed interest in developing renewable sources of energy, a prime initiative of the Obama administration. The Osage Nation has a century-long association with mineral-based energy like oil and gas. Now the time has come to expand that definition and teach their children to see green energy as the new oilfield, he said.

“What is going on with talk of renewable energy is like the New Deal,” Gray said. “That program funded an interstate highway system, but this will fund a new way of looking at diversified natural energy resources like wind, hydro and solar energy.”

While they look at changing their energy profile, Gray said, bettering their tribal jurisdiction is a sure thing because of the economic stimulus funds. For starters, he sees the money being used for “brick and mortar” types of improvements.

“As a result of these monies, we are hoping to accelerate road projects that we have in Osage Country,” he said. “Now that the monies are being made available, we can complete the projects quickly. I think tribes are going to have to identify how the monies could help them.”

Meanwhile, the National Congress of American Indians has posted information online for webinars that teach tribal officials and employees how to apply for grants to levy economic stimulus funds. Some of those grants could fund youth mentoring programs as well as physical land improvements, according to the NCAI Web site.

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The economic stimulus funds for Indian country have been broken down into various avenues including $410 million for health facility improvements like new construction, $20 million for medical equipment, $135 million for health services and $50 million for contract health funds. Better health care for southwest Oklahoma Indians is a focus for western Oklahoma tribes, said Leslie Standing, chairman of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

Standing, who leads a tribe of 2,300, said they want to see a new hospital to replace the current Lawton Indian Hospital. The current facility has been renovated within the last decade, but a new Indian hospital to serve the area’s seven tribes is overdue, he said. Smaller tribes are often at a deficit because of membership formularies that give more federal dollars to bigger tribes.

“We’re making inquiries as to how to access the funds,” he said. “Over here on the west side (of Oklahoma), we want to get our proper share of the funding.”

Additionally, $132 million for Indian school improvements has been earmarked for new school construction and $160 million for Indian school modernization. Around $150 million has been marked for BIA road upgrades while $320 million is for Indian Reservation Roads funds, now available from the U.S. Department of Transportation, officials said.

The pace needed to use the funds to stimulate the economy has one tribal leader worried about Indian interests. John Berrey, Quapaw Nation tribal chairman, said as a member of the national advisory council for historic preservation, he fears that a desire to use the funds quickly could interfere with federal statutes, like the National Environmental Protection Act. Moving dirt for some of these projects could bring unforeseen problems. Berrey leads the 3,200-member tribe near Miami, Okla.

“I worry that in their haste to use the monies to get these projects going, that NEPA, which regulates environmental studies before dirt work is begun, will be inadvertently bypassed. Although the Obama administration is very environmental-minded, I’m concerned about this because it happens all the time in the mainstream. The Quapaw Nation is very concerned about the use and care of our lands.”

Other funding breakdowns include:

• $510 million – Indian Housing block grants;

• $274 million – tribal water projects;

• $20 million – BIA Housing Improvement program;

• $5 million – Indian reservation food distribution through the Department of Agriculture;

• $20 million – BIA workforce training;

• $10 million – Department of Interior’s Indian Guarantee Loan Program.

As the tribes become more informed on how to get the funds into their tribal jurisdictions, Berrey hopes the money will go to helping Indian people, not funding Indian bureaucracies.

“We want to know where the money will be actually spent, I get a sneaky feeling that some of it could end up in Maryland or D.C.”