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The Rise of Tribes and the Fall of Federal Indian Law
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Bush administration a no-show at Campbell hearing
Thursday, May 20, 2004

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) lashed out at the Bush administration on Wednesday for failing to send a witness to his hearing on a bill to expand the self-governance program.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was on the witness list but couldn't attend due to his travel schedule, which had taken him overseas. However, the department didn't send anyone to take his place "for reasons beyond my understanding," Campbell said.

"I have to say as a matter of record that I'm not at all pleased with the response we've gotten from the administration when we're taking up Indian issues that I really believe are measured to try to help Indian tribes become more independent," he added.

The remarks were the latest in a string of critiques against several federal agencies. For several months, Campbell has repeatedly noted his disappointment with the administration's stance on bills that have widespread tribal support.

Tribal leaders who testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee agreed. They accused the administration of ignoring Indians and of objecting when tribes try to take greater control of their affairs.

"The government does not put a priority on the health care of Indians," said Don Kashevaraoff, the president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

HHS officials attributed the no-show to a mix-up in communication. Thompson was not set to return to the country until today, one spokesperson said, although he ended up coming back a day early. In either case, he would not have been scheduled to testify, according to the department.

But Campbell has run into problems with the department more than once this year. When he asked Dr. Charles Grim, the director of the Indian Health Service, to testify on his agency's new budget back in February, HHS officials balked because Thompson had not yet finished his Capitol Hill rounds.

And when the hearing was finally held, Grim couldn't attend due to personal reasons. Campbell wasn't pleased with the absence.

Those feelings festered in recent weeks as HHS and other Bush officials testified against every single bill he has introduced. "An awful lot of agencies in Washington are scared to death of any kind of change that might benefit tribes," he said late last month.

Yesterday, Campbell called S.1696, the Department of Health and Human Services Tribal Self-Governance Amendments Act, the "next logical measured step" to advancing tribal interests. It would enable up to 50 tribes to take over a wide range of programs at HHS, including foster care, Head Start and substance and mental health programs.

Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe of Washington, said self-governance, which started out as a pilot project a decade ago but is now law, has been an "unequivocal success." "It is effective, it is efficient," he told the committee.

Yet officials at federal agencies don't want to give up "their precious programs" to tribes, he said. This attitude "is really in the way of the future in terms of Indian communities," he said.

Alvin Windy Boy, chairman of the Chippewa Cree Tribe of Montana, said self-governance has been important to his rural reservation because it has led to improved health care services. "We've got to get that flexibility from this administration, from HHS," he said. The tribe currently operates several programs identified in Campbell's bill.

So does the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said tribal executive Mickey Peercy. The tribe, which has the third largest enrollment in the country, joined the self-governance program because "We're bound to be able to do a better job than the IHS," he testified.

Campbell, who is retiring at the end of this year, has said his proposals face uncertain futures in light of opposition from the administration. "Perhaps them not being here is an indication they support the bill and just don't want to tell us," he said.

Related Stories:
Tribes endorsed for child foster care funds (5/19)
Senate panel to consider health self-governance bill (05/19)
Campbell warns BIA's Anderson of 'Washington' attitude (05/13)
Campbell says agencies afraid of helping tribes (04/30)
Campbell bill to address contract support costs (4/28)
BIA critical of main components of recognition bill (04/22)

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