Show: Showing Indian country the money


As Indian country breathes a sigh of relief over President Barack Obama’s allocation of about $3 billion of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan to tribes and tribal projects, we members and leaders of large land-based Indian nations still fear the dollars headed our way must run a gauntlet of federal bureaucracy before they can turn into “brick and mortar” and be of help to Indian people.

The federal stimulus plan, though relatively generous, risks being totally watered down since it must pass through existing channels like the BIA or individual states before it gets to the reservation.

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The Blackfeet Nation, for instance, with more than 16,000 members and a reservation of over 1.5 million acres, has sought funding for a host of now familiarly “shovel-ready” projects, but it will have to do so through the BIA. This route for securing stimulus money strikes fear into the hearts of any Indian person who has experienced firsthand the BIA’s idea of tribal economic success (especially over the last 80 years since the Indian Reorganization Act was passed). Despite its many Indian employees, the BIA has never shown the kind of cultural reciprocity necessary for truly cooperative economic development.

Some estimate the BIA bureaucracy saps 82 cents of every dollar headed for Indian country. That means we get 18 cents on the dollars allocated to us to fulfill the United States’ treaty and trust obligations – 18 cents! Can you see why the Blackfeet Nation is skeptical about the impact of the stimulus package on our large reservation?

If that weren’t bad enough, the Blackfeet Nation will receive its Indian Reservation Roads and certain social services program stimulus money through block grants within the State of Montana’s allocation – and still have to compete with other tribes. Even worse, because these monies must pass through traditional funding channels, we are gravely concerned that it will be used to build up state and BIA bureaucracy rather than tribal infrastructure.

The Blackfeet Nation and its elected leadership are prepared and able to efficiently put federal money to work today, this afternoon, now. The apparent route for the stimulus package, however, suggests that the United States trusts bureaucrats in D.C. and the State of Montana more than the Blackfeet Nation and our people on the ground in Glacier County.

Our frustration stems from the fact that we Blackfeet, and large land-based tribes like us, have a host of projects ready to go. These aren’t pie-in-the-sky development efforts – quite the contrary. For example, we’re trying to provide potable water to our members and local neighbors. The Blackfeet Community Water Project was begun eight years ago in an effort to provide clean water to the Browning/East Glacier area, currently served by a system installed in the 1890s.

Federal, state and local tribal dollars were secured to begin what was originally value-engineered to cost between $12 and $15 million. However, limited amounts of funds from these sources were available, requiring the project to be phased in staged components. Put simply, the project became too expensive. The tribe anticipates a $7 million shortfall – in other words without $7 million, many of our tribal members and non-tribal neighbors do not have clean water to drink. With $7 million they do.

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We have a brand new high school that can’t be occupied because the town of Browning cannot accommodate the school’s needs without the new water project. Water, water everywhere and it’s being diverted across the highline for downstream users throughout Montana. We fear the upstream users of the tribe’s stimulus money will leave insufficient resources to fix the Blackfeet water crisis.

These immediate needs can be addressed quickly and efficiently through a direct grant of funds to tribes. Using old BIA pass-through delivery systems frustrates the goals of the stimulus – quickly infusing cash into local economies, developing shovel-ready projects and providing jobs.

The BIA has never shown the kind of cultural reciprocity necessary for truly cooperative economic development.

The United States should take this historic opportunity to put their faith in the ability of Indian nations, which are sophisticated governments just like President Obama’s. Indian country will profit from a new kind of federal trust relationship – one where the federal government trusts tribes to efficiently allocate economic stimulus resources. The Blackfeet people, and their duly elected leaders, know what is best for the Blackfeet Nation.

TJ Show is the executive secretary of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.