Republicans' Indian policy should focus on urgent needs and long-term results


The current policy on Native Americans can be summarized within the context of Cobell v. Norton or Trust reform as an inherited "problem." The Administration has tended to focus almost exclusively on this litigation to the extent that it has become synonymous with Indian issues in general. This poses two problems for Indian country. The first is that as scandalous a matter as the mismanagement of the tribes' trust assets is, it is by definition a matter affecting a delimited portion of the Indian population. The second problem is that while the spotlight shines on Trust reform, except for the efforts emanating from Congress, all other Indian concerns lay seemingly in the dark.

As for Cobell v. Norton, this litigation has nearly achieved a limited objective of highlighting the failure of the Trust management system, but is still far from an adjudicated solution. By some wild estimates, the "problem" has been defined to lie within a range of three to 30 billion dollars. Intuitively, we can assume that there is little incentive to settle, on the government's part, for sums on the higher end of the range. It also appears that it is not only the sheer amount of money in question that frightens the bureaucrats, but principally the fact that they can't determine who exactly is owed what. It is therefore understandable that there is huge variance in the amount of the prospective liability.

From these few facts, the conclusion can be drawn that either this case will drag on infinitum or some mutually acceptable and negotiated settlement must be reached between the parties concerned. I vote for the second option, but then, I don't have a financial stake in the outcome.

Moving beyond the quagmire of Trust reform, I can envision the elements of a Republican agenda led by the White House and supported by Congress. Bowing to election schedules and political realities, the focus should be on short-term deliverables with long-term impact. For starters, the public adoption and restatement of several key programs by the administration will provide the necessary framework by which the Native American agenda can develop, while also supporting the Republican Party's outreach for the Indian vote and political support. A concerted and comprehensive outreach by Republicans to Native Americans will pay dividends beyond what would be expected from a voting population of less than two million. This policy can succeed because the GOP's ideals are congruent with Indians' core beliefs, such as self-reliance, government at the grass roots level, family values, self respect, health care and economic empowerment, to list a few.

The tribes' right to govern themselves has been an integral part of the Republican platform as recently as the 2000 convention, and as subsequently endorsed by the President through various proclamations and letters to Indian leaders. Supporting legislation that clarifies the conditions and ability of the tribes to exercise self-determination is critical to creating a climate conducive to private investment on the reservations and ending the legal ambiguities and wrangling that appears to absorb the creative efforts which otherwise should focus on effective economic growth, education and other social needs.

Allowing the tribes access to federal programs and treatment under various regulations, in a manner akin to the States and municipalities, will remove the "mystery" from the average citizens' ability to interact with the tribes and vice-versa. For instance, the tribes should be allowed primacy over issues relating to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and natural resource protection on their own lands. Within this context, it is also vital to strengthen the tribal court systems and jurisdictional definitions.

Across the land, it has become apparent that two key components to tribal economic development are the capacity to attract investment in the form of jobs, industry and financial resources, but more importantly, the tribes themselves must have stable governments capable of dealing with the complexities of the modern world. Promoting the tribes' ability to grow the sophistication and stability of their governments should be a central theme, focus and component of the federal government's Indian policy.

Indians suffer at a far greater proportion to the general population from various life threatening diseases yet, on a per capita basis, receive one-third the funding for medical care than do non-Indians. Health care and infrastructure funding must increase to bring these communities to a level equal to those in the rest of the United States. Similarly, of the two federally run education systems, BIA institutions are funded at a level significantly less than that of Department of Defense (DOD) schools. Poor infrastructure and shortages of adequately prepared instructors retard the Indian children's ability to take full advantage of this nation's opportunities. Funding must increase to make these schools competitive and to ensure that "no child is left behind."

Lastly, in the areas of housing and transportation, the need far exceeds the conditions evident elsewhere. Poor road infrastructure prevents access to markets and business investment on reservations, while inadequate or substandard housing erodes the dignity of Indian families and threatens their health. Overall, the poverty experienced by many Native Americans on reservations weakens the family structure and promotes a breakdown of culture and a drift towards self-destructive behavior, including drug abuse and alcoholism.

Increased funding for economic development, education, health care, housing and transportation infrastructure is vital to improving the lot of the Native American population.

John Guevremont is a Mashantucket Pequot member and represents the tribe in Washington, D.C. A life-long Republican, he has been active in Connecticut and national politics and was a delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention, where he was instrumental in providing the language for the convention's Native American Platform. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.