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Opinion: First Montanans ignored by Sen. Burns
Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tracie Small is a member of the Crow Nation of Montana. The following represents her personal views.

By now, just about everybody in Montana knows that Sen. Conrad Burns helped secure a mysterious $3 million school construction grant for the wealthy Saginaw Chippewa tribe in Michigan; that the Saginaw Chippewa tribe was a client of disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has since pled guilty to a host of bribery and fraud charges; and that Burns received more than $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients, more than any other member of Congress.

It appears that Burns went out of his way to help a wealthy Abramoff tribal client in another state, possibly in exchange for Abramoff campaign contributions. But as new information on the Burns-Abramoff scandal continues to unfold, one important story hasn’t received much coverage: Burns has a dismal record when it comes to assisting Montana’s own Indian nations, even though many Native Americans in Montana live in poverty.

Burns defends his giveaway to the Michigan tribe by saying that he has long been a supporter of Indian education. The truth is just the opposite. In fact, just last week Burns voted against an amendment that would have provided $1 billion for tribal programs, including $220 million for tribal education.

The amendment, offered by North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, included $95 million for education construction, and $100 million for Indian education programs. Anyone who has visited Montana’s reservation schools, which are often in a sorry state of disrepair, understands how much this funding is needed in Montana. The amendment also contained hundreds of millions of dollars for Indian healthcare, housing, sanitation and law enforcement.

Why would Burns vote against a proposal that could do so much good for Native Montanans in need? A closer look at Burns’ record provides some clues. Burns has a long history of opposing funding for tribal programs. At the same time, Burns has supported measures to reduce tribal sovereignty.

For instance, in June 2005, Burns led the opposition to kill an amendment that would have provided $1 billion to Indian health services. In March 2003 he did the same thing, raising a procedural point of order that killed $2.9 billion for tribal programs. Since 2003 alone, Burns has opposed $8.5 billion that would have aided Native Americans.

In addition to voting down needed funding for tribal programs, Burns has actively worked against tribal sovereignty. In 1998, Burns drafted a bill that would exempt all non-Indian land within reservations of Montana from tribal jurisdiction. In a New York Times article, the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs called Burns’ legislation “extremely dangerous,” saying, “It would take away a tribe’s ability to defend and protect its community.”

Burns also strongly opposed a proposal to allow the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to assume management of the National Bison Range in 1994, and in 2004 tried to delay implementation of a joint federal-tribal management plan of the Bison Range.

Burns’ anti-Native American voting record makes his handout to an Abramoff client all the more disappointing. It appears that the only way an Indian can get a fair shake in Burns’ office is to be a wealthy Abramoff client.

Burns’ mission in Washington has been to line the pockets of his lobbyist friends and their corporate pals, while turning his back on the first Montanans. Native Americans make up ten percent of Montana’s population, and it’s time we make our voices heard – across Montana, and in Washington D.C. This November, we must send Conrad Burns packing, to ensure that Montana Indians have a voice in Congress once again.

Vanity Fair:
Washington's Invisible Man (April 2006)

Relevant Links:
Conrad Burns for Senate - http://www.conradburns.com
Sen. Conrad Burns - http://burns.senate.gov
Montana Republican Party - http://www.mtgop.org
Montana Democratic Party - http://www.montanademocrats.org

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