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Indian Affairs

Many American Indians breathed a sigh of relief when George Bush picked Gale Norton to head the Interior Department. It wasn’t that Norton had shown much interest in native issues during her tenure as attorney general of Colorado. But many Indians had despaired that Bush was going to tap the former Washington senator Slade Gorton for the post, a man possessed by an unrelenting hostility toward the aspirations of Indian people. Indians had spent millions helping to defeat Gorton and feared that he would be hot for revenge.

And, indeed, the early days of Norton’s tenure seemed promising to many Indian leaders, filled with alluring inducements about increased mineral revenues, secure water rights, more spending for schools and health care facilities, and less federal interference in day-to-day tribal life. During her senate confirmation hearing, Norton even suggested that reservations should be viewed as something akin states.

Of course, the Clinton years had also been infused with evanescent rhetoric about improving conditions on reservations, addressing problems of environmental racism and honoring tribal sovereignty. But the 1990s saw little improvement in the quality of life in Indian country. The numbers are bleak: more than forty percent of Indians live in substandard housing, compared to six percent for the rest of the nation. More than 90,000 Indians remain homeless. Indians are twice as likely to be murdered as other Americans and their death rate from alcohol related causes is four times the national average. According to the American Medical Association, one in five Indian girls attempt suicide before they leave high school. Only nine percent of American Indians have college degrees, compared to 22 percent of whites and 20 percent of all Americans. The numbers go on and on.

But the initial sense of relief about Norton in Indian country has been short lived. Within the last month, the Bush administration has put forth a slate of policies that have outraged tribes across the West, from plans to open up Watcherman Draw, a sacred site for Crow, Blackfeet and Cheyenne tribes in Montana’s Pryor Mountains, to oil drilling to Dick Cheney’s push to store nuclear waste on Shoshone lands at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, to gutting of salmon protections in the Pacific Northwest in order to send more hydropower to power hungry California.

Bush’s pledge to boost funding for Indian education programs also evaporated. A 1997 GAO report disclosed the deteriorating conditions of Indian schools: overcrowding, no air conditioning, inadequate heating, leaking roofs, poor plumbing systems and backed up sewers. The GAO estimated that $754 million a year will be needed to bring these schools up to minimal standards of safety. But the Bush budget requests only $292 million, a decrease from current levels. School transportation funds also got slashed.

Indian housing and drug treatment programs have taken an even bigger hit. The Bush budget slashes housing block grants to the tribes by more than $52 million. The cut comes at a time when fewer and fewer Indians can afford to own their own homes, less than 30 percent according to the last census compared to 66 percent in the nation at large. Plus, the Bush budget eliminates entirely the $300 million drug treatment program that had been administered by the tribes. “These programs have done well in the past to fill in the gaps of other HUD programs, as well as to provide more diversity of funds that can fit the particular needs of each tribe,” Chester Carl, chairman of the National American Indian Housing Council, told CounterPunch. “Indian country needs more options, not less.”

The biggest blow, however, may have come with Bush’s nomination of Neal McCaleb as Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs. McCaleb now serves as director of Transportation for the state of Oklahoma. But back in Reagantime, McCaleb was appointed to the Presidential Commission on Indian Reservation Economies. The panel was headed up by Robert Robertson, a vice president of Occidental Petroleum, and was charged with developing ways to open reservations to “private sector” money. This was during the time that James Watt denounced reservations as “the last bastion of socialism in North America.”

The real objective of the commission soon became clear: it sought to reduce the federal obligation to the tribes while at the same time making it easier for oil, coal and mining companies to exploit tribal resources. The final report, released in November 1984, recommended a wholesale assault on tribal sovereignty and McCaleb, who then ran an architectural firm in Oklahoma City, became it’s chief promoter. Among other things, the report recommended subjecting tribal courts to the authority of federal appeals courts, imposing strict limits on tribal sovereign immunity, getting rid of the BIA, and including non-tribal members in tribal votes on taxation.

At the time, McCaleb, the most outspoken supporte of the report, said the commission’s report had been approved on a unanimous vote. Not true says David Matheson, who was then chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and a commission member. McCaleb said we voted for it unanimously, but I didn’t,” says Matheson. “If you become part of a commission like that and you think you know more than the tribal governments, then you’re wrong. When I hear someone say sovereignty is a problem, I’m concerned.”

Elmer Savilla, former director of the Tribal Chairman’s Association, was more succinct. Savilla called the McCaleb report “the most dangerous paper on proposed Indian policy to be written in many years.”

For his part, McCaleb doesn’t seem to have retreated from his view that reservations should be either privatized or simply cut loose from federal supports. “There’s been 150 years of failure and it’s obvious that the federal government is not going to be able to deliver a viable, self-sustaining economy to the reservations.”

These darkening prospects have prompted a renewed militancy on the part of Indian activists. In Alaska, for example, the confederation of tribes have decided to take their complaints against the US government to the United Nations, who may get a fair hearing with the US voted off the human rights commissions. They have prepared a human rights complaint citing dwindling federal funds, crumbling schools and hospitals, deteriorating roads and mounting levels of white on Indian violence. The UN option didn’t appeal to Senator Frank Murkowski, who summoned tribal leaders to a hearing Washington on May 11.

Murkowski, who as ranking member of the Interior Appropriations Committee controls the flow of federal cash to Indian issues, threatened the tribe, saying that the UN human rights commission was “a sham” and that the Indians would “be used improperly by countries whose primary purpose is to undermine the credibility of the United States.”

But Ed Thomas, head of the Tlingit and Haida tribes, didn’t back down. Thomas told Murkowski and the Bush crowd had pandered to Indians during the campaign, but had delivered nothing. “You’re quite happy to give hand outs to city mayors when they come calling, but not to us, even though tribal needs are often much greater.” CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink co-written with Joshua Frank. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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