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'State of Indian Nations': Could be stronger

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Promoting progress for an entire people is a difficult task. It requires resolute strength and unity among nations, a clear voice and direction from their leaders. After all, in Indian country people are not simply cogs within their collective political or geographical nations. That said, we give proper respect to the National Congress of American Indians for trying to be that clear voice.

NCAI's address to the nations is important because it provides an opportunity to broadcast the vision of our senior leadership organization. We expect the address to report the strategy for legislative success and outline how this translates into a better life for Indian people. The address promotes tribal sovereignty by stating an agenda that demonstrates how Indian country can tackle the problems that confront us. This agenda must emerge from the participating nations of NCAI and clearly articulate what tribal leaders and community members can do to assist in the long term.

The fifth annual State of the Indian Nations address, given in Washington by NCAI President Joe Garcia on Jan. 25, provided a positive but broad - perhaps too broad - overview of the issues that are important, today, in Indian country. Within that category are the expressed components of the NCAI agenda: tribal governance, public safety, health, economic development, education and natural resource management. But what about these agenda items makes them not just important, but critical, to the welfare of Indian people? The address did not provide an apparent roadmap of our collective agenda, thereby passing up an important opportunity to give Indian people the conceptual tools needed for moving forward. This aspect is necessary because it may be the one chance all year that the intended audience is watching and listening - members of Congress, and Indian people, including leaders, media and community members.

In making an eloquent argument for a ''strong'' state of Indian nations, Garcia missed a few opportunities to draw attention to this year's legislative agenda, to laud works in progress or to announce new initiatives that might build upon previous successes. He might have mentioned how NCAI will work with this new Congress, and perhaps, in two years, a new administration. Some creativity may have been needed to describe the many stalled legislative items awaiting reauthorization, but it is also time to begin a new dialogue and strategy based on economic development and resource management. Our leaders must remain mindful that we as Indian people are lifted by not only our past successes, but by our ability to imagine future achievements as well.

Addressing health care, which was ''third of the six points on the agenda,'' Garcia pointed out that ''we came close to passage, but time ran out.'' We all acknowledge the ''importance of good health care in the U.S.,'' but time did not simply run out after six years of bipartisan revision and negotiation of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The situation is more serious than that.

Last-minute opposition from the Bush administration at the end of the 109th Congress blocked the health bill's passage, further delaying its reauthorization and appropriations for the IHS. The anonymous objections raised by the Department of Justice, essentially implying an increased potential for liability of the United States through coverage of Indian program employees under the Federal Tort Claims Act, indicate a threatening breakdown in the fundamental understanding of the foundation of Indian health care. It is unclear how or when this matter will be settled in the new Congress.

Health facilities and resources in Indian communities are unequipped to face a burgeoning load of health issues, including disparities that NCAI describes as ''massive'' and we describe as unconscionable. Just a few examples from NCAI's own reauthorization fact sheet: The infant mortality rate is 150 percent higher for Indians than for Caucasians; Indians are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes; and health care expenditures for Indians are less than half of what America spends for federal inmates.

For Indian country to be strong of spirit, we need to candidly address the mental, physical and emotional health of the people and be able to do so with adequate resources. Students of the late teacher John Mohawk have heard that as our people die young, their cultural knowledge and experience cannot reach the next generations. The severing of this thread is a terrible disease in itself. A strategic push by tribal leadership organizations like NCAI is essential if the IHCIA reauthorization is to modernize health care services and delivery.

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Tribes are encouraged by new Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who reaffirmed health care as a top priority at the start of his tenure in January, said NCAI Executive Director Jackie Johnson. Dorgan ''knows and understand the treaty responsibilities and obligations,'' and plans to make health care a priority, according to Johnson. As well, control of the Resources Committee rests with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. For now, this committee remains the primary stage for Indian issues. Because Indian health and other pressing issues do not receive enough attention in the House, many Indian organizations, including NCAI, are persistently lobbying for a permanent Indian Affairs Committee in the House to provide an access point to the legislative process.

Another critical issue, Indian housing, was missing from the NCAI address. The housing bill, which amends the 1996 Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, is now awaiting its reauthorization by the new Congress. It is a dangerous task to prepare a list of issues that is truly representative of all of Indian country, but we must acknowledge fundamental human rights. Meeting basic needs begins with adequate housing resources - training, assistance, ownership, et cetera. NAHASDA recognizes the ability of tribal governments to self-develop culturally relevant and affordable services to improve living conditions in their communities. There has to be stability in order to strengthen Indian communities, and this legislation helps to literally put a solid foundation under our feet.

On the topic of education, Garcia told of the need to equip Indian nations with necessary resources ''to ensure that Native children are given the same opportunities in education that are afforded to their non-Native peers.'' Expanding the Indian Head Start program is a goal; the bill is due for reauthorization, but has been stalled in the Senate since the last session. Funding for the readiness program for disadvantaged children has been steadily dwindling, each year limiting the number of eligible children who can attend. Perhaps this was discussed at the NCAI strategy session, held the previous night.

The State of the Indian Nations address alluded to President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative, also up for reauthorization this year. We're not sure how ''local control'' in education, a Republican theme, plays out in Indian country, where schools are already at the mercy of limited state funding.

We agree that incorporating traditional and cultural messages into school curricula helps Indian youth achieve academic success. A major question is how new legislation like the Native American Languages Preservation Act will manifest itself in our schools and other learning environments. Garcia noted that revitalizing the language of a given community aids cultural continuity, but we think that the sustained, concerted effort to see this legislation through a lame-duck Congress deserves a mention during the nations' highest address. But the legislative victory is just the first step. The next is to interpret its use in our tribal and community schools.

It's important to end on a positive note, as Garcia did. The topics of economic development and natural resource management are fusing together more than ever. ''Inseparable,'' noted Garcia. This was a strong message to Indian nations, that we ''recognize the importance of balancing natural resources and economic development with sustainable conservations principles.'' Indeed, he mentioned tribes that are staying consistently on message, not just through words, but through their environmentally conscious actions and policies.

Indian nations are leading the way in reducing dependence on fossil fuels for their communities and regions. Initiatives that parlay alternative and renewable energy generation into good tribal economic policy are proving successful. This year's agenda for tribes must include a communications component to get this positive message out to the American public. As the elder voice in environmental stewardship, we are doing our part to adapt to climate changes that affect the health of our Mother, the Earth. Indian people finally have the masses behind them in support of ''green'' policy. It's time to find our voice and promote our philosophies of stewardship as a matter of strategy. In doing this, we will realize our greatest strength.

Communicating the singular vision of many people is a true test. We commend NCAI for its work on behalf of its membership, and look forward to hearing what contributions citizens of Indian country can make to our collective bright future.