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Presidential candidates respond to tribal concerns

WASHINGTON - Recently, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) posed a variety of written questions to presidential candidates Al Gore, George Bush and Ralph Nader.

Most were based on the Republican, Democratic and Green Party platforms regarding Native Americans and covered a wide range of issues, from the candidate's commitment to tribal sovereignty and Indian people, to technological and economic development and the reorganization of the BIA.

"While some measure of distrust regarding the federal government remains among American Indians and Alaska Natives today, we understand the power of political participation and are taking every possible measure to ensure unprecedented Native voter participation in the 2000 elections," said JoAnn Chase, NCAI executive director. "Indian country is watching closely, expecting to be engaged and eager to exercise the collective power of our vote."

Today, tribal governments play an influential role in many local and national elections. They meet with candidates, consider positions, attend conventions and even offer planks for the platforms, as shown during the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles where tribal leaders and Indian people from across the country gathered to form a national tribal caucus.

Susan Masten, president of NCAI and a member of the Gore campaign platform committee, spoke before the convention's general assembly. Although tribes have not been as warmly received by the Republican Party, some did co-sponsor events at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and have been actively involved in the development of the Republican platform on Indian issues.

While tribes enjoy greater visibility and attention from candidates and political parties, it has not come about on its own, nor has it emerged without a price tag, observers say. Tribal governments and Indian people have, over the past 10 years and even more so in the past five, been working to influence the political process in many ways, including financial contributions to candidates and political parties. Politicians have responded and some now consider tribal governments and Indian people a potent political force.

Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore, responded to NCAI questions by focusing on the record of the Clinton administration and outlining his continued commitment to the current administration's Indian policies.

"The issues of concern in Indian country are near to my heart," Gore said. "President Clinton and I have worked very hard, together with tribal leaders, to improve conditions in Indian country. I would like to be very clear, if elected, I will continue the president's commitment to Native Americans."

Programs and activities Gore highlighted in his responses included his support of "New Markets" initiatives and expanding "Empowerment Zones" to promote economic development on Indian lands. Gore says these projects will focus on technology, business development, and tribal economic development activities.

He also says he and vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., will also focus on initiatives which address the "digital divide" in Indian country.

"If elected president, I will work to further the steps that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has set in motion, helping tribes to improve their telecommunications capacity and bringing wireless technology to Indian country."

Republican candidate, Texas Governor George W. Bush, focused his responses on improving the condition of Indian schools, reforming the trust funds system, the BIA and the IHS, and reiterating his support of tribal sovereignty and the "government-to-government" relationship between tribes and the federal government.

Although Bush was quoted in the past with a statement which supported the idea of subordinating tribal governments to state governments, the governor now maintains that he is fully committed to tribal sovereignty and the federal-tribal relationship.

"I will strengthen Native American self-determination by respecting tribal sovereignty, encouraging economic development on reservations and Indian lands, and working with Native Americans to reorganize the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service to better serve their needs," he said. "I will also uphold the unique government-to-government relationship between the tribes and the United States and honor our nation's trust obligations to them."

Bush indicated the poor condition of tribal schools is one of his major priorities. He says BIA schools are the sole responsibility of the federal government and as such, the federal government has an obligation to maintain their structural soundness.

"I will provide an immediate infusion of $928 million to eliminate the current backlog of needed repairs and maintenance, as well as fulfill the promise to replace six schools," Bush said.

Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader has turned much of his attention to the cleanup of tribal lands, the development of reservation infrastructures, and a re-commitment to the federal government's obligations to tribal governments and Indian people.

His vice presidential candidate is Winona LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Chippewa Tribe in Minnesota.

"If the United States guaranteed health care and education for all the needs of Native nations it made treaties with, then it has a paramount obligation to fund those services first," Nader said. "This government spends billions in foreign aid to other countries. Should Native nations, upon which this country's wealth has been built, expect anything less? A Nader/LaDuke administration would reallocate funding from foreign aid and military needs to full funding of human needs first."

Nader also seeks to reorganize the BIA. He says he would decentralize the bureau to area offices so programs continue to be influenced and modified to best serve recipient governments at the local level. He says he would also widen the continued contracting for the administration of programs to capable tribal governments where the programs can be provided as closely to the communities they serve.

Masten says there is much at stake in this year's election in light of close races in the House and Senate and the fact that whoever controls the White House will have the opportunity to appoint three justices to the Supreme Court. She hopes that Indian people will educate themselves about the candidates and get out and vote.

"Because of our increased presence on the national scene, many promises have been made by candidates on both sides of the isle," Masten said. "We must not let the great opportunity to advance the Indian country agenda pass us by. We must demonstrate our collective power by showing up to vote in large numbers on Nov. 7th."

The questions and responses from each candidate are to be printed in full as part of a special pre-election edition of the Sentinel, NCAI's quarterly report to its members. NCAI is the oldest and largest national Indian organization, representing some 225 tribal governments and Alaska Native villages.