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Senate Indian committee focusing on basics

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BISMARCK, N.D. – U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., says his attention is focused on helping those who live on American Indian reservations.

In a speech during the 12th annual United Tribes Tribal Leaders Summit in Bismarck, the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee said he is taking the committee’s work back to basics.

Dorgan said the committee spent a lot of time recently on a necessary investigation into a lobbyist scandal that sent some people to jail. Now, he said, the committee is focusing on health care, housing, education and law enforcement.

“All too often, First Americans get second-class treatment,” Dorgan said Sept. 3 to about 300 tribal leaders from North Dakota and the northern Great Plains.

“The Indian population of this country has had to live with inadequate health care and the fear of being unsafe in their own communities for far too long. The Native community has urged Congress to address these issues.”

Dorgan acknowledged the federal government’s promise to make funds available as a matter of its treaty and trust responsibilities. He said he made it a priority to work on the Indian Health Care Reauthorization Act, which has passed the Senate but not the House of Representatives. A bill to fund the measure will probably not be introduced in the Congress until early next year, when there’s a new president, he said.

He also said he has advocated that a large portion of the Global AIDS Bill, approved in July by Congress, be devoted to Indian health care, law enforcement and water projects.

American Indians face serious housing problems. He reported that the Native American Housing Act has been reauthorized. He said 90,000 Indians are homeless across the country; 40 percent of Indian housing is unsafe or inadequate; and one-third are overcrowded.

Dorgan said that there’s “a public safety crisis on reservations” because the federal government has not met its commitments and that eight hearings of the committee have been devoted to law enforcement. Among the revelations are that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute 65 percent of the cases brought to them from Indian reservations. The rate is 50 percent for murder, Dorgan said, and 76 percent for rape and sexual assault cases. He has learned that U.S. attorneys are frowned upon if they spend too much time on Indian issues.

“That is shameful. That is second-class law enforcement. No one who lives on an Indian reservation deserves that.”

The U.S. attorney general was asked to testify before his committee but the invitation was declined, he said.

Dorgan said a priority of the committee will be passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act, which will impose accountability measures at the federal level, strengthen tribal justice systems at the local level, and reauthorize and improve programs to fund tribal justice systems.

“Native people of this country should have access to basic necessities – water, health care and safety. I will continue to be an advocate for these issues that will improve the quality of life in our Native American communities.”

In the area of education, Dorgan said he has been “on a mission” to increase funding for tribal colleges. In the appropriation process, the amount is up to $57 million for next year. But funding has not yet been passed because of opposition from the Bush administration, he said.

“I think the stepladder of education … is so unbelievably important,” he said.

Dorgan also pointed out that he was successful in winning legal authorization for United Tribes Technical College, which will be included now along with the nation’s 36 other tribal colleges and universities. He said he was “enormously proud” of UTTC and the work done by its president, David Gipp, and staff.

Dorgan concluded to applause by saying that First Americans deserve first-class education, first-class medical care and first-class housing.

“It is a great privilege for me to serve in the United States Senate,” he said. “It’s true that I’m elected from North Dakota, but I’m honored to serve for all Americans and I’m especially honored to serve and work with the Great Plains Indian tribes. I consider the Indian Affairs Committee a very, very important committee in the United States Senate – one that’s going to invest in the lives of American Indians that’ll make a big difference in our future. So let’s continue to work together. I think our better days are still ahead.”