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Daschle speech calls on U.S. to keep promises
Monday, March 1, 2004

Ed. Note: Senator Tom Daschle delivered the following statement Thursday on the floor of the U.S. Senate. An audio copy of the remakrs can be found at http://democrats.gov/actualities/daschle. Click on the http://democrats.gov/actualities/daschle/daschle022604.mp3 link.

"Madam President, all week long, tribal leaders from Indian nations throughout America have been in Washington for the winter conference of the National Congress of American Indians. They include leaders from the Great Sioux Nation of South Dakota, and many others. Democratic Senators just met with many of these leaders; and some are in the gallery now, listening to these words. I am honored by their presence.

South Dakotans are very proud of our State's tribal heritage. Some of the greatest leaders South Dakota has ever produced were Native Americans. They include Crazy Horse, the legendary warrior-leader; a man of extraordinary nobility, the great Lakota spiritual leader, Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull helped lead his people in defense of their lands. When it became clear that defeat was inevitable, he helped lead his people's efforts to secure a fair and just peace.

In negotiating the treaty under which the Lakota ceded their lands, Sitting Bull asked representatives of this Government: "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."

More than a century later, the tribal leaders who have come to Washington this week are asking us to do the same thing: "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."

Last July, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report that has already become a landmark. It is entitled "A Quiet Crisis." It documents the harsh realities of life in Indian country today. I ask unanimous consent that the executive summary of the report be printed in the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.

We cannot undo the damage caused by more than a century of neglect and broken promises in one year or even one decade. But we must make honoring our trust obligations under those treaties we signed a real priority now. And we must take steps this year to address two of the most urgent obligations of Native Americans.

The first of these obligations is the need to find a just and fair settlement of the Indian trust dispute. Partly because so many American Indians live on remote reservations, not many Americans understand what the Indian trust fund dispute is about. It stretches back to the 1880s, when the U.S. Government broke up large tracts of Indian land into small parcels, which it then allotted to individual Indians and tribes.

The Government, acting as a "trustee," took control of the Indian lands and established individual accounts for the landowners. The Government was supposed to manage the lands for account holders. It would negotiate sales or leases of land, and any revenue generated from oil drilling, mining, grazing, timber harvesting--or any other use of the land--was to be distributed to the account holders and their heirs. But that is not what happened.

The Indian trust fund has been so badly mismanaged for so long by administrations of both political parties that today no one knows how much money the trust fund should contain. Estimates of how much is owed to individual account holders range from a low of $10 billion to more than $100 billion.

The people who are being hurt by this mismanagement are some of the poorest people in America. Many live in houses that are little more than shacks, with no heat, no electricity, and no phones. Many of them are elderly. They have been waiting their whole lives for money that belongs to them--money that our Government is holding and refuses to account for.

Ten years ago, Congress passed legislation requiring the Department of the Interior to make a full and accurate historical accounting of all trust assets and obligations. Seven years ago, a banker named Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, sued the Department to force it to comply with our order.

Last fall, a federal judge finally agreed. It seemed that was going to be the beginning of the end of the trust fund dispute, and it was now finally within reach.

Then, shockingly, the administration and leadership in Congress on the other side, behind closed doors, added language to the 2004 Interior appropriations conference report ordering the Interior Department actually to ignore and defy the judge's ruling. Clearly unconstitutional, it violates the separation of powers and due process protections.

It has become increasingly clear that this administration's interest is in limiting the Government's financial exposure rather than seeking a just settlement of the trust dispute. Despite its obligations to consult with the tribes, the Interior Department is now trying to push through its own plan to reorganize the Indian trust.

Tribal leaders have not been consulted. Deep skepticism and opposition in Indian country continues to exist.

Earlier this month, the administration sent Congress its budget for next year. It now makes deep cuts in every program affecting Indians, except one. There is a 50-percent increase for the Department's trust reorganization plan.

The BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, divides America into 13 regions. Yesterday, congressional and tribal leaders held a "summit" on trust reform. At that summit, the tribal representatives to BIA in all 13 regions pleaded with Congress to slow the Department's unilateral reorganization of the trust.

No trust reorganization plan can succeed without the involvement, support, and leadership of the tribes. It is time for Congress to take a more active role in trust reform. Three things are essential.

First, we need a new round of comprehensive public hearings. This week, Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell announced that the Indian Affairs Committee would hold hearings. I thank him.

Second, congressional meddling in the Cobell litigation must end. The "midnight rider" putting court orders on hold must not be extended; courts must be allowed to do their job. Last year Senators McCain, Johnson, Inouye and I introduced a bill, the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act Amendments, requiring the Interior Department to conduct an historical accounting for all trust assets.

Third and finally, the Federal Government should start budgeting for an eventual solution. Money in those accounts belongs to Indians, and the Government cannot continue to hold it. Last year, in introduced the Indian Payment Trust Equity Act. It would create a $10 billion fund to begin making payments to trust holders who have received an objective accounting of their trust assets.

Somehow, the Federal Government must put its money where its mouth is and begin making trust holders whole. The complexity of the challenge cannot be used as an excuse to continue denying account holders what is rightfully theirs.

Another injustice that must end is the chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service. The report last summer by the Civil Rights Commission, and another by the Centers for Disease Control, show that Native Americans live sicker and die younger than other Americans as a result of inadequate health care. The Indian Health Service budget accounts for one-half of one percent of the Department of Health and Human Services budget. The health system with the sickest people and the greatest needs get the smallest increases.

Last week, I held health care "town hall meetings" on Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. We expected 200; we got 700. I heard horrific, heartbreaking stories. People talked about losing parents, children, and spouses because health care wasn't available. Some people had waited months to see an IHS doctor. Finally, they couldn't take the pain any longer. They went to a non-IHS hospital, and they ended up with hospital bill they couldn't pay, so they lost their good credit rating as well as their good name.

It is unacceptable that the Federal Government spends twice as much on health care for federal prisoners as it does for Indian children and families.

It is immoral that sick people are turned away every day from IHS hospitals and clinics in this country unless they are in immediate danger of losing their life or a limb.

"Life or limb" is not a figure of speech. It is an actual standard for care, and it is a national disgrace.

Last March, I offered an amendment to the budget resolution to provide $2.9 billion in order to fully fund one part of the IHS budget. Unfortunately, every Republican senator voted against it. They offered an amendment with $292 million, one-tenth of the amount we proposed. It was inadequate, but we accepted it, only to find when the Republicans went to conference, they killed their own amendment. We tried repeatedly last year to increase funding by $2.9 billion, and we will do so again this year.

More than a century ago, our Government signed treaties with the Indian nations, promising to provide them and their descendants three things forever: health care, education, and housing. The Federal Government must now keep its promise and provide these benefits which the Indian people have already paid for in full with their lands.

Tribal leaders are in Washington this week asking once again that we live up to our ideals.

Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.

Relevant Links:
Sen. Tom Daschle - http://daschle.senate.gov

Related Stories:
Senate panel to hold hearing on BIA reorganization (2/26)
Anderson praises Cobell suit in NCAI speech (2/25)
Tom Daschle: Leave no Indian child behind (2/25)
NCAI kicks off annual winter session in DC (2/24)

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