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Tackling the housing problems of Indian country

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Decent housing is a great first step in a family sticking together and improving their lot in life. For an Indian demographic that sees tens of thousands of new families each year, plus a depressing backlog of people who need access to better living conditions, it is a primary issue.

Heartfelt kudos thus to a group of Indian leaders who recently teamed up to improve access to decent housing in Indian country. It has to do with an initiative by the National American Indian Housing Council to build 100,000 homes in Indian country in the next 10 years.

Several prominent Indian leaders have pledged to help NAIHC to raise $10 million over the next decade to help in the resources to be made available by the program, "Housing First for the First Americans."

NAIHC Executive Director Gary Gordon has focused his organization on a comprehensive campaign for decent housing in Indian country. He is to be congratulated. Indians suffer from predatory practices worse than other groups and have less and worse housing than all groups. Gordon points out that Indians experience overcrowding at a rate six times the national average. Only 33 percent of Native Americans own homes - less than half the national rate. Approximately 200,000 homes are needed by families in Indian country, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

A quiet and always decisive force behind such beneficial partnerships is another co-chair, Keller George, Oneida Nation ambassador, who as president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) put his legendary touch on the other Native leadership. George called the project, an "opportunity ... to make a difference in Indian country."

We note with respect also the involvement of another co-chair, Eloise Cobell, executive director of the Native American Community Development Corporation and an ardent supporter of home mortgage availability for Indian families as a way to assist economic development. Cobell is best known, of course, for her courageous and trail-breaking work on the Indian trust accounts case.

At the invitation of the Indian co-chairs as well as NAIHC chairman Russell Sossamon, a fourth partner, co-chair Daniel Mudd, representing private company Fannie Mae, kick-started the fund-raising effort with a donation for $1 million for the housing program.

Thus, a solid program that will benefit people across the spectrum of Indian country begins. It deserves double the goal - up to $20 million. We hope the money tribes will soon ante up at least the first 5 million required for this important fund, perhaps as a way to challenge some of the major foundations such as Ford or Kellogg to contribute matching resources. Similar funding initiatives by the five or six big money tribes on behalf of all of Indian country, in housing and in education and in public communications would greatly add strength to political good will across Indian country.

A major endowment to set up a $50 to $100 million dollar foundation to supplement housing and education scholarships in Indian country is something the financially strong tribes should seriously consider over the next two to three years.

The problems of Indian country are severe but of workable scope, if only steady and respectful approaches to community empowerment and development are made available. We commend this kind of partnership represented by NAIHC, USET, NACDC and Fannie Mae, who put their minds together to tackle, in a serious and direct way, one of the most devastating hardships facing Indian families.

Talent, volition and resources are required, but positive and permanent change can happen when the right people come together with purpose. We extend our encouragement to all those involved in this excellent initiative.