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Recovery plan must include Indian country

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The unprecedented interest and participation in the election of Barack Obama, though inspiring, is fading as the most important story of the season.

The U.S. economic collapse has the nation’s attention and is aiding awareness about the hardships long suffered by Native Americans, perhaps because deteriorating prospects are now affecting American society at large.

This brief period of transition has already offered glimpses of Mr. Obama’s work ethic and leadership style as he readies the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which he hopes will instigate a national economic rebound. Native America is watching, cautiously optimistic, to see if the Obama presidency will mark a genuine investment in the potential of Indian country.

There are positive signs that Native American groups have moved on to the next phase of their relationship with the incoming president. Hope and change have been buzzwords. Now there must be actions. Recognizing that Mr. Obama is focused squarely and publicly on an economic stimulus package, leaders in Indian country and Congress have been busy preparing detailed plans of their own.

The National Congress of American Indians is advocating for tribal governments to be considered on par with states in President-elect Obama’s economic recovery plan, and that access to capital is afforded to Native citizens. NCAI is urging the United States to distribute nearly $6 billion out of the estimated $850 billion stimulus plan for tribal infrastructure spending. It is a relatively small sum considering the benefit for Indian communities long eluded by viable, long-term economic development.

The national U.S. unemployment rate has reached seven percent with some analysts predicting the figure could grow larger. But consider the unemployment rate in Indian country. Estimates have long hovered near 80 percent for some of the poorest communities, though the average for Indian reservations has always far exceeded the national rate.

Native America is watching to see if the Obama presidency will mark a genuine investment in the potential of Indian country.

The U.S. is experiencing what Indian peoples have endured for generations. Emergency measures to fight back a depression must include resources, programs and support for tribes or the hope and goodwill Mr. Obama cultivated throughout Indian country is sure to dissolve.

Young people are always encouraged, and some raised, to become leaders in their Native communities. But many youth grow up surrounded by substance abuse, poor plumbing, crumbling roads, unsafe bridges and dams, and they attend schools deemed hazardous to their health. These conditions can no longer be tolerated. A truly comprehensive stimulus plan must provide tribal governments with the means to directly address this situation so Indian country is equipped to contribute to America’s turnaround.

NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata reminded members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee during an oversight hearing that investment in tribes can make a large impact, especially when located in rural areas of the country. Her statement falls in line with a message we, and many others, have heralded for years: Indian sovereignty is good for America. Now is a good time to test that principle.

The SCIA, under the continuing leadership of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., last week presented its own, $3.5 billion plan to President-elect Obama that focuses on stimulating reservation economies by creating jobs primarily through construction and support projects. Included in the proposal is funding for health, education and justice facility infrastructure as well as employment training and business development. It’s a promising start, but the request needs to reach the finish line to make a difference.

Congress last year approved a $2 billion influx for Indian health, water projects and public safety. The funding must be a part of Mr. Obama’s budget in order for it to become available for tribes. Government accountability for treaty responsibilities is overdue. Coupled with an investment in the technical skills, cultural experience, and work ethic of Native Americans, accountability might find its way to the White House yet.

Confronting Mr. Obama’s commitment to Indian country with hard truths about the state of Indian nations and lack of federal-tribal coordination, Native Americans intend to hold the new president to his word. There could be no better time to do it.

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