Roller Coaster: an art installation by IIlkka Halso of Finland

The federal roller coaster ride continues for Indian Country. Good news is that in this administration American Indians are on the roller coaster, but it’s still a scary ride, with no one sure which direction it’s heading.

There have been “big doings,” as my mom would say, for American Indians in Washington D.C. this past month. The National Congress of American Indians held its annual executive council meeting there during a record snowstorm.  The council focused on legislative goals for the 111th Congress and the Obama administration.  Several members of the President’s cabinet showed up to address attendees, including Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency’s Lisa Jackson, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Munoz and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

Secretary Salazar promised support to tribes in developing greener energy resources, improving education and public safety. His statement that he was “troubled” by the recent Supreme Court decision Carcieri v. Salazar piqued the hopes of several gaming groups. The decision found that the Interior Department doesn’t have the authority to take land into federal trust for Indian tribes that were recognized by the federal government after 1934.  The decision impacts several tribes hoping to build casinos on acquired trust land. Media reports, including a story from the Cape Cod Times,  indicate that at least 30 tribes have requested building off-reservation casinos as far as 1,000 miles from reservation land.

Tribal leaders also attended a Tribal Leaders Summit at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week. During the four-hour meeting, leaders shared concerns about health care, public safety, transportation, economic development and land management. 

Later, the thrill ride continued as Secretary Salazar told the Associated Press that he hopes to resolve the 12-year-old Cobell trust lawsuit. (Cobell v. Norton is a class-action lawsuit filed on June 10, 1996, in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 American Indians and their heirs, and held in trust since the late 19th century.) Salazar called the case “a blemish on the United States and the Department of Interior.”

Lead plaintiff in the case, Eloise Cobell, however, kept the pressure on as she expressed frustration during a subsequent Associated Press interview. She called Salazar’s remarks “an insult to Indian people.” She added,  “If he were serious (about ending the suit)  the government would settle now.” Desire, alone, is not enough to settle the case according to Cobell who also noted that many of the Indian plaintiffs have died or are approaching the end of their lives.

The White House released a fact sheet Monday on Indian funding within the President’s proposed 2010 budget indicating that he is working to improve the quality of life for Native Americans by directing hundreds of millions of dollars in new resources to the Indian Health Services. The budget also includes more than $100 million in increased funding to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as additional monies to the departments of Justice and Education to strengthen tribal judiciaries, law enforcement, colleges and schools. These proposed expenditures build on monies earmarked for Indian Country in the stimulus package.

On the weird side, President Obama has signed the controversial $410 billion fiscal year 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act that contains several earmarks that benefit Indian Country. Many lawmakers have criticized the Act as containing too many “pork” projects as politicians jockey for support and votes in their home districts.  President Obama described the Act as “old business,” signing the bill in the conspicuous absence of photographers.  Under the Omnibus Bill, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would receive $2.1 billion and the Indian Health Service $3.6 billion – with $36 million for urban Indian, or off-reservation, health care. The bill boosts many programs that were cut or eliminated by the Bush administration.  Funds for suicide prevention programs, law enforcement, tribal colleges and health care are included in the earmarks. (The Omnibus Bill also funds the federal government itself; the current Continuing Resolution expired on March 6. )

Next stop on the ride is the Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on tribal priorities for  the 2010 budget.  The witness list includes Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians;  Robert Cook, president of the National Indian Education Association; and Cheryl Parish, vice chair of the National American Indian Housing Council.

Jody Gillette, newly appointed Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, assured the National Congress of American Indians at this month’s meeting that the Obama administration “will move ahead and get some work done.”

That’s what we’re all hoping for.

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