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State of the Indian Nations address

WASHINGTON - In one of the major speeches on the national Indian calendar,
Tex Hall sent a clear message to a conservative Congress that the cultural
diversity and legal standing of tribes should not be mistaken for
separatism.

"We as Indian people all share the goal of working together as one people,"
Hall said. Indian cultural values and the important lesson of listening,
passed on by elders, enjoin tribal governments to cherish community and
country, he added.

"Indian country has become a part of the institutional fabric of the United
States," he said, citing unprecedented tribal voter turnout last November
in states like South Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona. The 2004 presidential
election "energized Indian people like no other time in our history."

Hall found many notes of hope to sound in the National Congress of American
Indians State of the Indian Nations address Feb. 3, but he put an even
greater emphasis on the need for congressional funding of Indian programs
in a difficult year for domestic budget items. Indian country has enjoyed
rising income levels, falling unemployment and poverty rates, and less
crowded housing since the 1990s, Hall said. But he linked the improvement
to tribal self-determination - "Tribal self-government works" - and called
on Congress for "equal funding" with state and local governments to close
the steep disparities that still exist for Indians in various measures of
wellbeing.

"Equal health care, equal schools, equal accounting for our trust assets" -
and equal treatment of tribes as they raise the funding for community
development projects, a reference to the tax-exempt bonding reforms that
have failed in previous sessions of Congress. Though they can already issue
tax-exempt bonds, "tribes are subject to a stringent essential government
function test that others [state and local governments] do not face," Hall
said. The Internal Revenue Service has begun to challenge tribal
development projects that can be associated with casinos, according to the
accounts of Washington-based tax attorneys who work with tribes. Casinos
proper are ineligible for tax-exempt financing.

Turning to domestic violence and sexual abuse in Indian country, Hall made
a bold call for equal authority of tribal law enforcement officers to
arrest and detain non-Indian offenders on tribal lands, just as Indian
offenders would be treated off-reservation. He referred to a Department of
Justice finding that Indian and Alaska Native women are "abused in far
greater rates than any other group in the United States" - and nine out of
10 times in rape and assault cases, according to the DOJ, by non-Indian
men. But tribal authorities lack jurisdiction over non-Indians, so the
offenders remain free and their victims remain at risk. This situation has
to be changed by an act of law, Hall said: "This must be passed now in the
109th Congress."

Hall identified a handful of other Indian priorities before the 109th
Congress:

Health care: "Reauthorize the tribally-proposed Indian Health Care
Improvement Act this session."

Education: With only 50 percent of Indian students graduating high school,
school choice, teachers and Native languages are all challenges under
President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative. "We challenge
Congress to fund Indian education programs at least at the same level as
other education programs."

Telecommunications, transportation, and housing: "We need help from the
Congress and the president to increase housing" - as well as the
infrastructure of roads and telecommunications that supports housing in
prosperous communities.

Energy: "Enact and support an Indian energy bill this year."

Tribal courts: Hall encouraged the Department of Justice to continue
funding its initiative.

Contract support costs: Legally binding contracts for the costs any other
contractor incurs in providing services must be enforced for tribes that
fulfill federal services with federal funds. An NCAI resolution requests
"full funding of all contract support requirements and ask[s] Congress to
fully budget and to fully appropriate tribal contract support costs."

Trust accounting: the current class action lawsuit over Individual Indian
Money accounts is "a quagmire," Hall said. He called on Congress to "settle
the accounts and the future of trust."

Hall closed his speech with an indirect reference to the hard times that
have fallen on the federal budget, courtesy of $270 billion worth in wars
abroad and the resultant constraints on domestic discretionary spending.

"The social crisis is not an Indian problem. It's a world problem ... You
must do better at home." But Indians have already survived some of the
worst social catastrophes on record, he added. "We do not shy away from any
crisis."

Answering questions after the speech, Hall said tribes lost a strong ally
when Tom Daschle, the South Dakota Democrat who also served as Senate
Minority Leader, fell short in his re-election bid. But he said many
congressional members still look after tribal interests, among them Rep.
Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who attended the address and offered comments on the
budgeting process afterward. Hall said he has asked Sen. Byron Dorgan,
D-N.D., "to step forward" for Indians as vice chairman of the Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs. "That's part of our culture. You do your best
and that's what you can do."

He acknowledged that 2005, when the federal budget for fiscal year 2006
will be established, "looks to be a real tough budget year." Cuts to some
Indian programs are certain; Hall said a major goal is to make sure no
programs are eliminated altogether.

Even in view of the war costs in Iraq and Afghanistan and the limits they
place on the domestic spending on which tribes rely, Hall said NCAI tribes
have not called on the White House for reductions in military expenditures.
"Ride it out," he said, noting that Congress restored many Bush-proposed
cutbacks last year.

Hall will step down from the helm of NCAI later this year when his term
expires. He is also chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in
North Dakota.