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Senate investment a good start

The news of an inclusion of nearly $3 billion for American Indian tribes as part of the economic stimulus bill has spread quickly through Indian country, prompting some optimism, but mostly deep concern about whether it will be enough to help lift reservations out of poverty.

Members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, led by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., had requested $3.58 billion for tribes as part of the stimulus plan, while the National Congress of Indians originally pressed the government for $6 billion for tribal infrastructure spending which would, in turn, create jobs and boost Indian economies. The large bill is praised by supporters and sold by President Obama as one that will inject resources directly where they are most needed. That may be so for the American economy at large. This appropriation, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, while substantial, may not even scratch the surface of what is needed in Indian country.

Many tribal governments lack the resources to provide basic infrastructure necessary to grow economies, educate youth, house families, or prevent epidemics. As a result, unemployment is consistently double that of the rest of the country. Poor health conditions persist on many reservations, exacerbated by old and understaffed medical facilities. Telecommunication capabilities that are taken for granted by most Americans are nearly non-existent on many reservations.

It might have been tempting for the American public to overlook these conditions during the era of Indian gaming, when a small fraction of tribes prospered. However, the road to this recession led millions of Americans to understand the effects of government neglect and irresponsibility.

Native America’s intense, early engagement with President Obama’s transition team and now administration is paying dividends.

The $2.8 billion allocation for Native communities puts the bulk of the funds toward Indian health care – $410 million for construction and facilities, and $135 million for services. This influx is sure to please many a tribal government, especially those who endure criticism from members over inadequate care. However, the IHS budget last year totaled $3.35 billion alone. The agency’s most urgent challenge is minimal budget increases that do not match the rate of population growth among Native Americans and Alaska Natives eligible for IHS services. There is potential for this allocation to cause controversy throughout Indian country once it is divided among the tribes, not to mention regularly overlooked urban facilities.

Other items noted in the Senate Appropriation Committee’s plan are $530 million for Indian housing, $486 million for improvement of tribal roads and bridges, $459 million for water projects, $327 million for school construction and modernization, $325 million for public safety and justice programs, and $170 million for other items, such as USDA food distribution, BIA facilities repair and Tribal CDFIs.

An economic specialist at NCAI described the bill as a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” The relatively small sum is not quite that, but it is a long-awaited chance for tribes to demonstrate competence in project management and fiscal conservatism. The confidence is there – many tribal governments have accomplished more with much less.

Native America’s intense, early engagement with President Obama’s transition team and now administration is paying dividends. Mr. Obama’s pick for Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, met with tribal leaders at a strategy session in Washington Jan. 19, the day before he was confirmed. There, leaders lobbied for inclusion in economic opportunities arising from alternative energy exploration. Unmentioned in the stimulus legislation, energy projects in Indian country will be a major focus during the Obama administration, which NCAI President Joe A. Garcia says is just the beginning.

“It’s finally happening,” Garcia remarked on Inauguration Day. “We’ll continue to do our part. If we’re prepared, it can be a new era” in federal-tribal relations.

Let the preparations continue.

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