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To the Bush administration: Don't forget about the First Americans for housing

On Nov. 1, the White House issued a proclamation commemorating the month as National American Indian Heritage Month and recognizing the "rich cultural traditions" of Native Americans and Alaska Natives. Several weeks prior to this, the White House issued a different message, advocating a major initiative to promote homeownership for minorities, yet Native Americans were not named in the press release on this initiative.

While it is admirable to recognize our culture and traditions, it is shortsighted to overlook the current conditions in Indian country, especially when Native people have the lowest homeownership of any minority group. This doesn't include the fact that Native people have the most substandard housing, homes lacking sufficient plumbing, or housing units that are ill-prepared for the weather. There are even homes with as many as 25 people?sometimes from different families?sharing the same home due to extenuating circumstances.

The President's voice was sorely missing in offering direct and tangible help to the most needy of all. Owning a home is a chance to build a more financially and socially stable way of life, and nowhere is this more desperately needed than on reservations.

In an October conference, President Bush spoke of closing the gap between white and minority homeowners, detailing a plan to raise the number of minority homeowners by 5.5 million by 2010. This is encouraging, considering that Fannie Mae released a report at a summer mayors' conference, stating that affordable housing is a major concern for working families. An astounding 41 percent of the people cited in the report identified housing as more of a problem than the skyrocketing costs of health care (39 percent), unemployment (34 percent) and crime (20 percent).

It's commonly recognized that Native people are plagued by financial, medical and social issues. Housing, on the other hand, is a completely separate issue, remaining unrecognized by much of the American population.

Native Americans, who make up less than one percent of the population, tend to live on reservation lands, most of which are tucked away from the daily hustle and bustle of urban centers. On many reservations, horrid living conditions fuel the feelings of hopelessness and reflect decades of being overlooked as a population. To further complicate things, many of the 562 federally recognized tribes have extensive waiting lists, meaning there are thousands of families hoping to have access to a decent home.

As the premier organization representing Native housing issues, the National American Indian Housing Council would like to make one vitally important message clear: In this push for increased homeownership, it is absolutely necessary that the Native population not be overlooked.

For years, as part of the government's trust and treaty responsibilities, tribes have received funding and other resources. However, in 1996, when the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) was passed, tribes received more freedom to provide more appropriate housing for their tribal members. Since NAHASDA was enacted, approximately 25,000 homes have been built. Still, it's not enough.

More must be done to combat the tragically slow progress in Indian country. And it doesn't help that a minority homeownership conference occurred without inviting even one representative from the largest national tribal housing organization: NAIHC. It's truly disappointing that NAIHC's presence wasn't considered necessary. In effect, the valuable input of an entire minority population was excluded from consideration. This is disturbing because homeownership offers tribes a number of benefits, both financial and otherwise - especially tribes located in the most desolate and poor places.

In a recent HUD report on the economic benefits of minority homeownership, statistics were presented for Hispanic, African American, Asian American and even white homeowners. But Native Americans were lumped into an "other" category. Quite simply, it's a further measure that First Americans are often the last Americans in line for economic revitalization. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problems in Indian housing, homeownership is an important component, and increased government assistance and more attention from the private sector are required to help bring about a solution.

Throughout America, homeownership results in more stable communities, better maintained homes, increased community involvement and enhanced educational achievement for children. In addition, homeownership through home equity growth allows people to earn a larger and more reliable return than most other investments, which empowers people by encouraging entrepreneurs. In effect, homeownership is exactly what Indian country needs to make life better for First Americans, providing help to the countless reservations plagued by social and economic issues.

While there is success in parts of Indian country, the progress has been tragically slow. Nonetheless, organizations like NAIHC will continue to partner with the private sector and federal agencies to do our part in improving our reservations and the lives of the people who call them home.

Gary Gordon, a member of the Mohawk tribe, is the executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.