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Republican forum courts Native views

WASHINGTON - The Republican Party hosted an inaugural Congressional forum Feb. 26 to sound out Native views on education, energy and economic development, health disparities and homeland security.

The emphasis was on views, not votes, but the message in a presidential election year came through clearly: Democrats are not the only political party prepared to engage with Native peoples and their issues. As expressed by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, "The Republican leadership is interested in sincere and productive dialogue" with Native American and Alaska Native leaders, as well as tribal college presidents.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., put feeling into the official position with reference to all the effort poured into "poking the wound" of Native experience in America. It is now time to put equal effort into "healing the wound," Brownback said, and pledged the Republican Party to the healing process.

Dave Anderson, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the BIA, roused the audience of 100 or so with an inspirational speech that focused on "success training" for Native youth. The millionaire founder of Famous Dave's Barbeque Shack restaurant franchise said Indian people, himself among them once, know all too well what it looks and feels like to fail, from the examples around them. But with training and education for success and positive attitude, Anderson believes every Indian can have an MBA - "a massive bank account."

Anderson also repeated a plug he'd made for the BIA's new computer system at the National Congress of American Indians Winter Session in Washington the day before. The bureau has poured approximately $50 million into securitizing and modernizing its computer capabilities with regard to trust functions. Though the system's all-important connection to the Internet has not yet been finalized, Anderson said it looks like a NASA installation.

In something of a surprise, Anderson added that the class action lawsuit over the Individual Indian Money trust, known as Cobell for lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell, has been a good thing for Indian country. This was a first for the Bush administration, whose core position on Cobell has been clouded by its concern over cost factors. But Anderson, who serves at the direct request of the president who nominated him, left no doubt that the view from the administration is positive. Only at the prodding of Cobell has the BIA updated its operations and approached parity of service provision with other federal agencies, Anderson explained.

Prior to these luncheon speeches, a roster of congressional and tribal speakers had exchanged views in the baronial members' room of the Library of Congress, off-limits to the public. Education, energy and economic development, health disparities and homeland security - these are embattled issues in Indian country, and not every comment was amicable.

But points of potential cooperation emerged. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., touted a bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate Majority Leader. S. 2091, the Closing the Health Care Gap Act of 2004, would enact provisions to reduce the disparities in federal health care experienced by minority groups. Democrats, led by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., have been tireless in their demands for a large increase in Indian Health Service funding.

Coleman's speech (without mentioning Daschle or the Democrats) set forth a "one step at a time" strategy instead: "I'm going to sign onto that bill as a co-sponsor. ? We need small victories. ? I'm very confident that we can get our arms around our [health care] problems-short term, then get some long - term funding and commitment."

At the end of the day, the consensus was that solutions come from Indian communities. "But if you don't authorize us, if you don't fund us, if you don't empower us," said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe in Washington state and one of Indian country's more prominent Republicans, "we can't make the solutions a reality."

The forum began the night before, Feb. 25, with a reception in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress. Among the speakers were Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., who said the day is past when Indians can afford to see their issues in a strictly Indian context; Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., deputy whip of the House Republican Conference, who noted the similar principles of self-reliance and personal responsibility between Native culture in the Americas and bedrock Republican philosophy; and Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz. Reuben Barrales, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs, had been called away to an urgent meeting "in the West Wing" and could not be present, but he was mentioned as a key White House contact on Native issues, along with deputy associate director of intergovernmental affairs Jennifer Farley.

The reception included a special tribute to the late Lori Piestewa, the Army specialist and Hopi mother of two slain in Iraq. The tribute included a solemn presentation of the colors, a Hopi honor guard, commemorative remarks from Piestewa's mother and father and the introduction of her son and daughter.