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Poverty grows as wealthy accumulate

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Greed is a sin of obsession and with great consequence, both for the sinner
and the victims of the sin -- at least, it used to be. Now it seems the
rich are getting very much richer while the poor are becoming very much
poorer.

Greed used to be frowned upon in American Indian societies, many of which
had established formal and informal protocols for maintaining social
harmony. The potlatch ceremonies of the Northwest are an excellent example
of the honor accrued, culturally, to both the providers and recipients of
wealth. Indian country used to stand proud upon its "giving traditions"
that witnessed the sharing of food, shelter and medicine, not only with our
own but also with arrivals from Europe.

Those within our communities who have converted to Christianity also
recognize within their adopted religious system that greed used to be one
of the seven deadly sins of Biblical lore -- related to gluttony and even
to thievery, as in the commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." But now being
filthy rich and burning through your cash, in itself (a la Paris Hilton),
makes you a celebrity.

Poverty keeps rising, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of
Americans now living in poverty is 35.9 million, up 1.3 million from last
year. Forty-five million are without health insurance. The figure in both
areas goes up every year. Five million more lost health insurance in the
past five years.

Not since the 1930s has the gap between rich and poor been bigger. Between
1979 and 1992, for instance, the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans raked
in an amazing 98 percent of all household income. Eighty percent shared the
remaining 2 percent. Top executive salaries are now 411 times higher than
the average worker's salary. In 1980, it was 42 times bigger. In terms of
total wealth, the top 20 percent controls 83 percent of the wealth while
the other 80 percent make do with 17 percent. This trend is widespread and
replicated -- in some instances even more starkly -- on the global scale.

The change in the American economy is now obvious. The working sectors that
supported manufacturing are left hanging out to dry, as "American"
companies scramble to employ cheaply and without much environmental concern
in countries from Mexico to China.

The point is: now that they are no longer needed, American working people
-- meaning, ultimately, most Americans -- seem expendable. Anxiety grows
among many families about the state of an economy that expands while
shrinking middle-class workers' jobs and pay scales. Income levels stayed
flat nationwide. This is one of the issues that actually matters to the
American people.

Will this ultimately become the prevailing reality among Indian peoples in
North America? The answer may be yes. While not exactly along the same
class lines (we have poor tribes and rich tribes), the trend is clearly
leaning that way. While some tribes pay out huge per capita payments year
after year (which is their right), the majority of Indian families (and
tribes) remain mired in severe poverty.

The median income over the past three years for single-race Native
households was $33,024, a drop of 1.6 percent. Nationally, income levels
fell 0.6 percent to a median of $43,527. While two dozen or more tribes are
presently running hugely successful gaming and resort enterprises, rising
misery and stagnant economic waters still plague most Indian reservations
and communities.

Recent census data tell us that an average of 23 percent of single-race
Native families live in poverty. The Indian rate is almost twice the
national average of 12 percent. Nearly 28 percent of single-race American
Indians and Alaska Natives are presently without health insurance. The rate
is almost twice the national average of 15.1 percent. The statistics
contained in the report "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in
the United States: 2003," among others, reflect the dismal picture.

The argument we have made here for several years is for ambitious
investment and philanthropy for the suffering rungs of Indian country among
the tribes who have made such great strides in their own tribal economies.
It is not that many don't already give generously to many causes; a lot of
tribes do support serious projects. There is also a bit of hope around the
growing base of Indian-owned businesses surfacing at the periphery of the
large gaming industry, but all of this has had a slow and sporadic start.
It is also true that most tribal communities have had no benefit at all
from the gaming explosion -- hampered mostly by remote geographic locations
that possess little market potential. What is needed is a vigorous plan of
action for Indian country as a whole. Wealthy tribes need to commission
serious studies about how much and what needs to be done among the many
remaining impoverished Indian communities.

Grassroots as well as tribal government and tribal corporate efforts are
needed to help support redevelopment efforts throughout Indian country.
American Indians must work together to invigorate and reinvest in
productive Indian leadership in every walk of life, from educators to
entrepreneurs, to give a decent opportunity to every able Indian person in
the land.

Here are just a few suggestions for the tribes:

1. Assert and, in some cases, regain philosophical and financial control
over your mission statement and gaming industries -- seeking to maximize a
program of diversification and investment in Native businesses and
communities. If you're not growing your profits to build a sustainable
future for your community and increased opportunities for Indian country as
a whole, just what are you doing it all for?

2. Show restraint in your per capita distributions. Take care of your own
families first, again, as is your right; but set some reasonable limits.
Begin to flow additional surpluses through development and philanthropic
entities that help to lift other Native communities out of poverty.

3. Resist inter-tribal xenophobia. Keep your tribal head out of its shell
while seeking out new and prosperous alliances and partnerships with other
tribes. Focus not on that which divides us, but on common themes and common
needs working toward shared successes.

4. Consider passing tribal government resolutions committing 1 percent of
the gross tribal product to inter-tribal development. One need only look at
the failure of the world's industrialized nations in the area of
international development and the lingering global crises and conflicts to
realize we ourselves can build a brighter future based upon American Indian
values.

If American society generally is being restructured because of economic
disparity, Indian country is singularly disunited around overarching
purposes. The bases for unity are very much there; but the leadership needs
much more prodding in that direction by all our people. There is a need to
re-clarify priorities toward a more encompassing approach.

Only by strengthening the bonds of shared lineage, tribal cultures,
histories and common political objectives will American Indians and Alaska
Natives hold on to their lands and values in our increasingly stratified
world.