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USET impact week: tribes being left out again

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WASHINGTON - The United South and Eastern Tribes issued 38 resolutions on Feb. 6, wrapping up a week of hobnobbing with federal officials and Congressional aides.

Terry Virden, the Bureau of Indian Affairs' newly confirmed Deputy Commissioner, spoke to the USET Board about the Bureau's 2004 budget. The numbers did not look good to the tribes, as USET Executive Director Tim Martin pointed out in the question session that followed.

"We passed out a letter that the BIA Budget Advisory Council has written to the Secretary concerning trust reform using up all of any type of increase to the BIA. In a sense, the trust reform effort is being paid for at the expense of all the other programs in the BIA. That is of great concern to us."

USET Board Secretary Beverly Wright elaborated afterwards: "When we were presented with the proposal that there was going to be an Office of Special Trustee, we were told that the office would be funded with new money. But it looks like they are giving $83 million to OST and reducing the BIA budget by $53 million."

Wright, who chairs the Gay Head Wampanoag Tribe on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, says the loss of money for BIA programs is especially hard on her thousand-member tribe.

"We have been level funded for the last four or five years - we're not even keeping up with the rate of inflation. We have no economic development, and we depend on federal funds."

Ergo, USET Resolution No. 49, which says, "the advancement of Tribal government priorities and goals are suffering at the expense of implementing trust reform by providing proposed increases in funding to the Office of Special Trustee, while funding to BIA programs were decreased millions of dollars ... Resolved that the USET Board of Directors opposes an increase to the Office of Special Trustee for the reorganization effort at the expense of other BIA programs ?"

Homeland Security: Not on our Rez

Another USET Resolution addressed an oversight in the Homeland Security Act. Federal funding to prepare emergency security plans in case of terrorist attacks is being given to states to distribute to local governments. But tribal governments are not included. USET "supports a legislative amendment to truly define governments by including tribes as eligible government entities for the purpose of receiving direct funding to support Tribal Homeland Security needs."

Narragansett Tribal Police Chief Robert Kenahan, a member of USET's Tribal Justice Committee, says the tribes are being left out again, and it's demeaning. Tribal police officers are federal law enforcement - better trained, he says, than many state and local police. Kenahan says the Narragansett tribe, located in Charlestown, R.I., has as much right to Homeland Security funding as any other entity, being that the reservation is on the Atlantic coast and is directly across from the Newport Naval Station. The naval station is home to the Undersea Warfare Center, the navy's research and development arm for submarines and underwater weapons systems.

Home is where your House is

USET's Housing Committee put forth seven resolutions, more than any of the other committees. Peggie Reynolds, of Florida's Seminole Tribe, said two major topics that led to resolutions were the nominees to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's negotiated rulemaking committee, and funding to combat black mold in tribal housing.

Reynolds says HUD has reduced the number of participants on the rulemaking committee, an important avenue for tribes to determine not just how much, but in what way funds will be distributed. She says HUD rejected USET's nominee for the northeastern corridor, stretching from Maine to South Carolina, leaving them without a representative for that area. Comments regarding the Indian Housing Block Grant Negotiated Rulemaking Committee are due at HUD's Washington headquarters by Feb. 21.

Black mold is caused by Stachybotrys bacteria, a health-threatening allergen that affects the lungs and the central nervous system. USET's resolution is calling for set-aside funding to remediate black mold problems that are affecting Indian housing developments all over the country.

According to Reynolds, city housing authorities have gotten sizable HUD grants to fight black mold. Not so for tribal housing.

"Indian housing is cut short and told to use the money we have in our block grant," Reynolds says.

She adds that this is a growing trend over the past two years against Indian housing programs in general. HUD eliminated a drug prevention/intervention/housing security grant for tribes, but has given public housing projects add-on funds for the same thing.

Beverly Wright, chairperson of the Wampanoag tribe, mentioned another legislative funding obstacle to renovating Indian housing. There's an Indian Health Service program to put water and septic lines into Indian homes. But the language forbids using it for HUD housing.

Wright says, "When our HUD housing gets older and we want to revamp or put in new systems, we can't use that money. So we were talking to legislators on the Hill, telling them that the language needs to be changed."

Cultural Preservation: Unite and Conquer

The Culture and Heritage Committee passed five resolutions on topics ranging from sacred sites protection to revising the regulations of the National Historic Preservation Act. Committee member Brian Patterson says the resolutions aren't as important as the fact that representatives of 24 different tribes come together to try to secure the heritage of future generations.

"We all have a commonality expressed through culture and heritage. To me, that amazes me - in spite of all the wars, the attempts at assimilation - culture transcends territorial boundaries."

Winners and Sinners

During Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's watch at the helm of BIA, economic development was a primary goal. He hosted a National Summit on Emerging Tribal Economies in Phoenix last September, urging partnerships between tribes and outside corporations.

After Terry Virden presented the 2004 BIA budget to USET members, he was asked if there was anything in the budget that speaks to economic development needs and what tribes can do to help continue to build economic development opportunities.

"There's nothing directly in the 2004 budget that's under economic development," Virden said. "There's several related things, what comes to mind is the increase for mineral exploration. But [economic development] is basically, as far as the tribes, what we need to keep pushing," he added. "I'm sorry I don't have a better answer for you, but I think that's one of the things that lost out in the push for fixing the trust system."

The final response to Virden's presentation came from Laughing Woman, of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe: "Shame on BIA for making Indian people pay for your mistakes by taking funding out of our programs."