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NCAI's Hall pushes pro-Indian agenda in speech

STATE OF INDIAN NATIONS: National Congress of American Indians President Tex Hall at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.
Stating that Indian Country is moving in the right direction, the leader of the National Congress of American Indians on Thursday laid out a broad agenda aimed at improving the lives of the first Americans.

In the third annual State of Indian Nations address, NCAI President Tex Hall cited a Harvard University study that showed dramatic gains in the economic well-being of tribal people. Income levels rose by 33 percent in the 1990s and the poverty rate dropped by seven percent, he said.

But Hall, who is also chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, pointed out there is much to be accomplished. "The glass is only half full," he told the audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "Income average of Indians living on reservations is still less than half of the national average. Indian unemployment is still double the rest of the country."

With that in mind, Hall identified several areas where he said changes are needed. From economic development to housing to trust reform, he called on the United States government to fulfill its responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and to ensure tribes continue moving forward.

"If tribes are to continue to be successful, we must have access to all tools that are also available to other governments," he said.

As the Bush administration enters its second term and the 109th Congress moves forward under a greater Republican majority, Hall said NCAI will work with members of both parties to advance a pro-tribal agenda. The proposals included:

• Legislation to clarify that tribes can issue tax-exempt bonds like any other municipal government. Currently, several tribes are facing scrutiny from the IRS for casino and hotel projects the agency says don't meet the "essential government function" standard.

• Reauthorization of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to ensure tribes maintain regulatory authority over telecommunications services on their lands. The Federal Communications Commission, divided along party lines, has given mixed rulings on the matter.

• Amending the Homeland Security Act, first passed in 2002, to treat tribes the same as state and local governments. The change would allow tribes to tap directly into the billions of dollars in homeland security funds.

• Recognition of tribal authority over non-Indians in domestic violence cases, as most crimes against Native women are committed by non-Indians. "Our women are abused at far greater rates than any other group of women in the United States," said Hall. "This is unacceptable and outrageous.

• Continuation of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants at the Department of Justice. Hall said funding for 235 tribal officers will end this year.

• Full funding of tribal courts under the Indian Tribal Justice Act in 1993. The law promises $58.4 million, Hall said, but none has been provided.

• Increased resources for Indian housing programs, which Gary Gordon of the National American Indian Housing Council said were "stagnant" for the past four years.

• More funding for Bureau of Indian Affairs education programs, including construction of new schools, which is flat-lined for the current year.

• Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which faltered during the end of last Congressional session.

• Settle the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust lawsuit and work with tribes to develop a fix for the future. Hall said the recent amendments to the Indian Land Consolidation Act that were signed into law by President Bush were an improvement.

• Passage of an Indian energy bill to help tribes tap into their natural resources. The measure was controversial among tribes during the last session but a compromise was reached. However, the larger energy package has stalled over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Hall, who is in his last year as NCAI president, said tribes will be looking closely at the fiscal year 2006 budget that Bush releases on Monday. "It is a negative trend that we're seeing" in funding for Indian programs, he said during a question and answer period after the speech.

To coincide with the address, NCAI released its own proposed budget yesterday. It covers various agencies and includes specific dollar amounts for key programs.

In an interview with Indianz.Com, Dave Anderson, the outgoing head of the BIA, said he tried to advance many of the same priorities identified in the speech during his year at the agency. "We have schools that are in need, " he said. "We have a growing gang and substance abuse issue. We have unemployment and economic development issues that are not being addressed."

As one of his final actions before departing next week, Anderson hopes to lay the groundwork for a task force with the Harvard American Indian Project on Economic Development, a program at the university's Kennedy School of Government responsible for the economic study cited in the speech. "We would do it in conjunction with the bureau," he said.

Relevant Documents:
State of Indian Nations Address | FY 2006 Tribal Budget Request

Listen to the Speech:
Real Audio | Windows Media

From the Indianz.Com Archive:
State of Indian Nations 2004 | State of Indian Nations 2003