Vasques: Promises made – or promises kept?

Victoria Vasques

For centuries, Indian people have heard many promises from countless politicians – and for us, Election Day was always the day the promises ended and the excuses began.

The ground of Indian country is littered with the results of Washington’s broken promises: inadequate health care, substandard schools, little economic opportunity.

Yet as Indians join other Americans in preparing to cast what is arguably the most important presidential ballot in two generations, many of us are falling prey, once again, to shallow promises.

It’s long overdue for American Indians to look at promises kept, not promises made.

In his 26 years representing Arizona in Congress, nobody has done more for Indian people than John McCain; and for the life of me, I can’t understand why so many of our tribal leaders are turning their backs on him.

Whether the fight involved housing, employment, Indian self-government or the protection of sacred sites, John McCain has consistently been there for us. His years on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, twice as chair, produced more legislation of importance to American Indians than at any other time in its history.

McCain worked tirelessly to improve Indian health care, championing efforts to combat diabetes and supporting efforts to address Indian mental health and substance abuse, most recently the epidemic of methamphetamine. Because of him, Indian health now has an elevated role within the Department of Health and Human Services.

At the same time, he’s fought to strengthen law enforcement on reservations, with improved tribal courts and detention facilities and landmark legislation addressing the twin problems of child protection and family violence.

No legislator has shown a stronger commitment to the principle of tribal sovereignty. To his core, John McCain believes in taking power away from the Washington bureaucrats, and putting it back where it belongs – into the hands of tribal governments. As one of the prime movers in enacting the Tribal Self-Government Act of 1994, McCain has created a legacy of self-sufficiency, improved services and more responsive programs throughout Indian country.

One of the principal issues in this campaign has been the relative ability of the candidates to “reach across the aisle” – working with political adversaries to find common ground to bring about a favorable result. It was in this area that McCain’s efforts yielded immeasurable results in righting perhaps the greatest crime ever visited on our people – the desecration of Indian burial sites and other sacred places.

It took years of patient negotiations to bring together museums, archaeologists, anthropologists and Indian tribes, but McCain was able, ultimately, to build consensus on historic legislation to stop the looting of our sacred tribal sites. The Native American Graves Protection Act, passed in 1990, is a historic achievement, one that marks a new landmark in the long (and too often cruel) relationship between American Indians and the U.S. government.

Having dedicated the last two decades of my life to improving the education of Indian students, I believe there is no issue more important to the long-term survival of the Indian way of life than education, without which our young people will be doomed to lives of poverty and dependence. Unless our children are given an appreciation of Indian culture, it will eventually evaporate. It is vitally important that tribal colleges and universities thrive so that our students can return to the places they love, to serve our people as doctors, nurses and teachers – and as entrepreneurs who can create the jobs that will sustain us well into the future. And it goes without saying that our younger children must be better prepared for college success.

If we can improve the tribal educational system, we will see improvements in the economies of our nations, with clearer paths for Indian students to take their place as wise and compassionate leaders of tomorrow.

We face a formidable challenge: our students too often are unprepared, and millions have been “pushed through” the school system with little regard as to what – or whether – they’d learned.

There are a few bright spots, but all too few, and McCain understands this. He appreciates the importance education plays: not just in preparing our young people for productive lives, but also in preserving our native languages and cultural identities. That’s why he’s worked with Indian communities to reform the BIA schools and to stabilize the long-term fiscal viability of tribal colleges and universities.

For too long, we have allowed ourselves to be enticed by the promises of sweet-talking politicians. Let’s hope that this time, we don’t take the bait. Let’s stand with one who has stood with us for many years and through many battles – Sen. John McCain.

Victoria Vasques, whose father is a member of the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, is president of Tribal Tech Inc., which provides consulting services for improving Indian education. She is the former assistant deputy secretary in the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education and was the principal point of contact within the federal government for Indian education initiatives

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