Congress must learn to listen
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - American Indians need to master the complexities of the legislative process in order to make Congress understand the issues facing Indian country. If they don't, the resulting legislation could be as hurtful as the problems it was designed to solve.
In addition to the need to ask Congress for more funding on health issues, among many others, an education lesson on Indian country is necessary to halt language that appears in many bills and acts that may not be deliberate but could have the effect of changing the definitions for Indian country.
Sovereignty may be put at risk with bills that are not American Indian-specific and that treat Indian country in general terms.
''We used to have more standalone policies; now they are disappearing from the horizon,'' said Deb Broken Rope, Oglala Lakota, a consultant between tribes and Congress.
''When they [Congress] don't see Indian-specific, they see [Indian country] as not sovereign - that tribes are part of the states. It's important to step up and represent your region,'' Broken Rope said.
She said there is a misperception of Indian country by some congressmen living in states lacking a large American Indian population. ''Some people and states think that if a person says they are Indian, they are,'' Broken Rope said.
It may become difficult to distinguish urban Indians from tribes because they will be seen as the same.
''The definitions are being bifurcated,'' Broken Rope said.
With the definitions changing, it could mean that the same number of dollars will be distributed to more organizations - urban or tribal - and that sovereignty is not a consideration and may be mitigated by some of the language in the proposed act.
''Do you want to compete with nonprofit organizations that are not sovereign?'' Broken Rope asked.
The fear among tribal leadership is that states may receive the power to define Indian country. Some states recognize organizations that purport to be tribes, but are not federally recognized. The states add those groups into their head counts and potentially receive preferential treatment when it comes to physicians and funding.
''My concern is that we are falling under the state's rights movement. If we support them, we say states can define us,'' said Jesse Taken Alive, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council member.
''Can we protest the language in the bill? We don't want to be seen as sellouts,'' he said.
The bill is the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which is expected to be passed in 2007.
Urban Indian groups are participating in more than Title 5 of the IHCIA, which authorizes urban Indian health. Broken Rope told the tribal leaders to make sure Title 5 stays strong.
Another concern for the direct service and treaty tribes is the congressional move to recognize the Lumbee, with an estimated population of 75,000.
At present there is no appropriation for the Lumbee if they become federally recognized. Tribal leaders fear a lower distribution of health dollars if the Lumbee are recognized.
Broken Rope told the attendees of the health summit that there is an attempt to change the IHS to an entitlement. ''This needs scrutiny; it doesn't need to go down the path of entitlement.''
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Natural Resources Committee, has a plan to change the IHS to issue vouchers for health care. Broken Rope said that would be a poor choice for the people of Pine Ridge and other Great Plains reservations. That proposal would benefit American Indians in urban and other non-reservation areas.
''The process can hurt as much as issues. Not knowing how to get legislation through can hurt.
''Congress faces huge deficits and they are making cuts in programs and we don't have alliance building,'' Broken Rope said. ''Cuts will come from discretionary spending.''
The reauthorization of the IHCIA has to go through five committees before passage and since 2008 is the election cycle, the act will have to be passed in 2007 or face low interest by Congress in the election year. It has been seven years since the IHCIA was reauthorized.