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Priorities of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

An interview with Sen. Byron Dorgan

Part one

WASHINGTON - For the first time since 2003, a Democratic chairman will take up the gavel of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has been a member of Congress since 1980, in the Senate since 1992. He also chairs the Democratic Policy Committee and has a seat on the Senate Native American Caucus. At all times during his tenure on Capitol Hill, he has been an advocate of Indian causes; but in speaking numerous times on the Senate floor of the need for Indian health care funding, while addressing the challenges and opportunities of Indian health still more often in committee, Dorgan has made Indian health care his top preoccupation. He began with it in an interview on the priorities of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Dorgan: We're looking at ... a new delivery model for health service on reservations, similar to what is going on in the private sector - developing walk-in, no-reservation clinics, with nurse practitioners that can do most of the routine diagnosis, have lengthy hours seven days a week, really try to improve the delivery of health care services, routine health care services, over the current model.

We'll be working on reauthorizing the Indian Housing Act, which is another crisis we've got. You know I had a tribal chairman stand up at a meeting last week and he said he has two daughters; one has eight children, one has three children. They both live in used trailer houses that have been brought to their reservation from the state of Michigan, both heat their trailer houses with wood stoves, neither have plumbing and neither have indoor toilets. I mean it's just - when people understand the housing crisis on reservations, it's pretty unbelievable, and we need to reauthorize the Indian Housing Act and try to find a way to get something significant done.

We're going to have an economic development summit here in Washington, D.C., mid-year. I continue to believe there's no social program more important than a good job that pays well, and by and large economic development has been a failure on reservations. I'm not talking about the work now that the tribal chairs have done; I'm talking about the work that has been done at the federal government to really give Indian reservations opportunities and new jobs. We'll have a summit talking about that.

We're going to be talking about a youth initiative on reservations. We'll address a number of issues, including methamphetamines, gangs, teen suicide and so on. We're still in the process of just visiting about how we would put that together.

And then finally, we'll continue to play a role on the Cobell issue [the class action lawsuit Cobell v. Kempthorne, over an accounting of the federally mismanaged Individual Indian Money trust]. The Cobell issue affects most everything else, as you can imagine. I'd really like to find a way to see if that can get settled somehow, in a manner that is fair to the plaintiffs and fair to the defendants.

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So those are the issues. I'm doing listening sessions. I did one in Minneapolis, I'm doing one in the West in Arizona ... I'm doing some listening sessions with tribal leaders and tribal members, just to say we're very interested in outreach and consultation, hearing from you directly, what you think the issues are and how you feel we should be addressing them. So I'm trying to do a lot of outreach early on in this session.

So that kind of tells you what we're about and what we're trying to do.

Indian Country Today: It's very helpful. If I could maybe ask some questions, starting with Cobell? Do you have to regroup, as Joe Garcia [president of the National Congress of American Indians] said in the State of the Indian Nations Address [Jan. 25], and really almost start over it would seem to me, or is there anything in the ''settlement concepts'' that the Bush administration put forward at the end of last year that is helpful, that you can build on?

Dorgan: We're now waiting for a [settlement] number that is supposed to be transmitted to us from the Secretary of the Interior [Department], saying here's the settlement number along with the conditions. That was promised to us some weeks ago. We still expect it. You know, obviously there are some conditions, even if you had a number that was acceptable, there are some conditions that have been raised in the most recent discussions at the end of last year that were done without consultation, and it caused some real concern among tribes. And so I think the first step is to receive from the administration their proposed settlement number, along with conditions, then begin consultation with the plaintiffs and other tribal officials in trying to determine: Is there something here that represents at least a portion of a settlement? Are there ingredients here that can be added to or subtracted from that can represent a settlement that's fair? At this point I don't know. But I don't think we have to start over, because there's been a lot of work done by the Indian community themselves.

But I do think there's been some substantial differences on a couple of big issues, so we'll have to wait and see how they work out. ... Regrouping, I think, means just stepping back a bit and taking a look at what had been proposed toward the end of the year by the administration, some fairly significant proposals that had not had consultation or been clothed in discussions previously. You know, settling tribal claims - most of us don't even know what those tribal claims might be. How would you evaluate that, and how would you settle claims that haven't yet been filed by Indian tribes themselves? I think a lot of work has been done by a lot of Indian leaders and by people at the Interior and elsewhere, and we need to review that, but we need to get the proposal from the Interior now in writing.

ICT: And just because of some of the issues you've brought up, how difficult it is and how little a lot of people know about it, I've been told ... that there's not a lot of taste on Capitol Hill, not a lot of stomach among congressional members, for really getting into this intensely. Are you picking that up, or is it to the contrary? We saw a lot of congressional members come out in support of a legislated settlement at a joint hearing of the Senate and the House of Representatives last year [March 1, 2006].

Dorgan: I think it's fair to say that there are people for whom this is not a significant issue and they're reluctant to be involved in it. But on the other hand, the failure to address it means that it will provide a shadow over so many other issues for so long. This has been going on for a decade, this issue. And it'll go on for a long - an additional period. And there is a substantial risk to the federal government of a liability that is very, very great here. After all, there is a government responsibility. It was the federal government that cheated, systematically cheated - and I use that word deliberately - cheated the American Indians by mishandling those trust accounts. Some of that was deliberate, some not; but whatever the circumstances, they have been aggrieved for many years and have suffered financial losses and damages, and Congress has - the government has - a responsibility to them.

(Continued in part two)