FROM THE ARCHIVE

Thompson heads out on reservation tour

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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 15, 2001

With federal statistics painting a bleak portrait of the well-being of Indian Country, the nation's top health official is embarking on his first tour to reservations as a member of the Bush administration.

While Congress slides into its August recess and the President himself relaxes -- and works, as the White House points out -- at his ranch in Texas, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson will visit four reservations this week. Since the trip will take Thompson back home to Wisconsin, consider it his own version of the "Home to the Heartland" the administration is currently pushing.

But Thompson's tour isn't his first to a reservation, department officials note. As former Governor of Wisconsin, he dealt with the state's tribes on a variety of issues, from health to gaming.

"He had an extremely strong relationship with the tribes in Wisconsin," said spokesperson Tony Jewell, "and he'll obviously work to continue that as Secretary."

If not for the significance of being the second Cabinet member to visit to Indian Country -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton, of course, was the first -- Thompson's journey is an example of the extremes facing American Indians today. From a once-impoverished tribe to one still facing significant economic hurdles, the man who oversees for the Indian Health Service will be seeing a wider picture of disparities than he has been used to.

His first stop will be in Michigan to the Sault Ste. Marie Ojibwe Reservation, where he will tour two health facilities and meet with tribal leaders today. When the tribe was federally recognized in 1972, members were suffering from high rates of unemployment, alcoholism and disease.

Like a number of other tribes, though, the picture turned around starting in the late 1980s with the advent of gaming and other economic development ventures. The tribe's casinos have helped make the 29,000-member tribe one of the wealthier in Indian Country.

History, and politics, haven't been as kind to Red Cliff Ojibwe Tribe, whom Thompson will meet as part of a two-day trip to Wisconsin. Unemployment rates for 3,900-member tribe hover above 50 percent as officials battle to open an off-reservation casino rejected by Scott McCallum, Thompson's replacement.

For the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where Thompson will go on Saturday, health and economic statistics point to an equally dismal picture. Located in one of the poorest counties in the United States, tribal members suffer from high rates of diabetes and smoking-related illnesses as leaders try to stem the sale of 4 million cans of beer, mostly to reservation residents, in the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.

It is these types of local issues that Thompson hopes to understand better during his trip, said the department. "People in Michigan, Wisconsin and South Dakota -- they have a butter idea of how things work well than people here in Washington, DC," said Jewell.

Thompson "is going to see how it is we spend our money on the Indian Health Service -- what we do well and what we need to do better," added Jewell.

For fiscal year 2002, which begins October 1, the Bush administration has requested $3.3 billion for the Indian Health Service. The amount is $107 above the 2001 level and $454 million above the budget for 2000.

Indian Health Service Director Michael Trujillo will not accompany Thompson this week. IHS estimates it serves 1.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives throughout the country.

In addition to the Sault Ste. Marie, Red Cliff and Pine Ridge reservations, Thompson will also visit the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in Wisconsin. He will not be making any other official stops beyond the reservations, said the department.

Relevant Links:
Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians - http://www.sootribe.org
Department of Health and Human Services - http://www.hhs.gov
Indian Health Service - http://www.ihs.gov

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