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Tribes must have stable government to prosper

Editor's note: This is the second article exploring how the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs perceives the outlook for Indian country in the new administration.

WASHINGTON - Economic development, and its importance, has been the cornerstone of many of Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell's policies and initiatives.

Asked about the ways tribes can promote more business on tribal lands, the Republican chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee offered two areas for improvement.

"One of the most important things is for tribes to recognize that they have to have stable governments if they are going to encourage investment," Campbell said, adding all they have to do is look at how Americans invest abroad.

He said the United States is the biggest investor in other world country, "We invest billions of dollars. That's private enterprise, not the federal government. They do because it is good for them, they can make some money.

These investors look for a stable work force and a stable government and an atmosphere conducive to business, he said. "Some tribes have that very well, but some don't have that very well. Some have unstable governments. I can tell you there can be an election and two days after the election there's a recall against half the tribal council.

"When outside investors see that it scares them. A stable government is really the key. If they don't have it, they won't come."

The senator emphasized the need for a long-term plan with "long-range goals about developing expertise to run it themselves. They have done that pretty well with gaming, because they will get an outside concern to front the money to build a casino and they'll have people in the tribe in training to take over management positions."

The same general plan needs to be followed in other areas, he said. "When you have an Indian tribe with their own infrastructure and their own people with the skills to be able to run it, those things grow together.

"They can't run it if there is no business there, but the business won't stay unless there is that kind of long-range stability."

The controversy over oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the possible negative impacts on the culture and traditions of the Gwich'in people of Alaska has been at the center of a national debate.

Campbell enters that debate with what he characterizes as threat exaggerated by environmentalists.

"I've been up there on numerous occasions. Most of the people I spoke to, who happen to be Native Alaskan, they are supportive of that. So we have the difficult question of how do we do it if we've got Indians on both sides of the issue.

"The Gwich'in say we should not do it while others say we should, but I've heard some of the same talk from the environmental community more than anybody else when the Alaskan pipeline was being developed years ago. They said that this will decimate the caribou herd and they will all disappear and they were giving us all these numbers and we come to find out that they were wrong on every count."

Campbell said the caribou herds tripled in size since the pipeline was built. He's been there and "watched those caribou, they love that darn pipe. It's the only heat in the winter, they hang around the pipe. It's the only abutments above the tundra so they scratch on it and it's the only shade in the summer so they sit under it.

"I've seen photographs of bears even walking along the top of that pipe.

"So, to say because man comes in somewhere, that you're going to totally decimate or drive out the animals, that is not true."

The senator said he's convinced if development is done with care, it will not hurt the caribou herds at all but will provide jobs for Native Alaskans and "provide more energy to get us away from the Iraqi energy."

In a bigger context, "We're 58 percent dependent now on OPEC oil when before the war in the Middle East we were only 36 percent dependent. We are actually paying Iraq money and he is using that money to rearm and that is going to help kill more Americans in the future."

Long a critic of the government's management of tribal trust funds, Campbell said the ongoing litigation and the Clinton administration efforts to resolve the issue bothered him throughout his term as chairman. He looks to the Bush administration for new hope, he said..

"I think one of the biggest frustrations I've had in the last few years is this trust funds mess. We have not found a solution to that and I'm not sure we are going to this year either.

"We had a bill that would have enabled the private sector money managers to go in and straighten out that mess because that's what they're skilled at, that's what they do. The Clinton administration opposed that, they were convinced they could do it themselves."

Campbell said he will be interested, as the new administration gets deeper into the questions, "if they think they can do it themselves. If they can so be it, but I don't think any administration is really equipped in handling these accounts like the private sector money managers."

Asked about sampling as a solution to lost trust accounts and Secretary of Interior Norton's stated support of the idea, Campbell said he remained skeptical, but understands the scope of the problem.

He noted estimates are that more than 100,000 accounts have been destroyed. "I don't know how you do it unless you make some assumptions and assumptions means some form of sampling. If there is another way to do it, I don't support sampling, but it may be the only, last alternative."

In general, Campbell sees a bright future for Indian affairs. He said he thinks that Indian country is well on its way to establishing itself as a potent force in national politics.

"Indians have really learned how to use an effective lobbying force in Washington. Almost every high-powered lobbying firm now has Indian contracts. So, when you're dealing with any kind of issue, the professionals are showing them how to do it.

They are not speaking for them, they show them how to speak for themselves and that is the best lobbying. I've found that if someone comes before my committee, I don't want to hear from some Anglo lawyer that is just a hired gun. I want to hear from Indian people whose lives are going to be impacted. Some of them don't to how to do that, how to print up the need briefing material or how to get in the door - the technical stuff they need to know."

The senator said the experts are needed and he sees more and more tribes availing themselves of that help. "Almost every tribe now has a voice here in Washington."

Campbell said he would look to history for the proof of his contributions to Indian country, adding his satisfaction comes in small measures and simple ways, just making a difference is what really matters.

"... I was raised just like a lot a mixed blood kids," Campbell said. "Alcoholism in the family, a sick mother with tuberculosis, orphanage for me and my sister, separated from our tribal group because my dad was in the Army in California.

"I often think if you can go home and believe that you've made it a little better than it was for you, that is the best you can hope for and only history will tell that.

"This place is interesting in that when you are in office there's a lot of people surrounding you, the press, the newspapers, the whatever, some of them feeding your ego. But when you're out the door, you're like last year's football hero. People don't remember who the heck you were.

"If you can do some good and remember that you were the one that did it in your own heart, then that ought to be enough."