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Indian advocates urge cooperation in Washington DC

With President Bush fully intending to spend the political "capital" he earned after winning 51 percent of the popular vote this week, what can Indian Country expect from four more years of a Republican-dominated government?

That question was pondered on Wednesday night at a forum at the National Museum of the American Indian. A panel of Indian advocates, based in Washington, D.C. and beyond, discussed the potential aftermath of the GOP's decisive win on Election Day.

Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, set the tone for the evening by talking of the need for tribal leaders to continue working both political parties. She said the next four years present an opportunity to work on economic development and education, two priorities of the Bush administration.

"We can get something accomplished in whatever environment we are in," Johnson, a Tlingit from Alaska who held a top position in the Clinton administration, said.

But Johnson noted that tribes and the Interior Department have struggled in two important areas: trust reform and government-to-government consultation. "We need to turn around that relationship," she observed.

Jana McKeag, a member of the Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma, said Indian Country shouldn't fear another term of Bush in the White House. A Republican supporter of the president, she wants her party to do more to improve its image among Native people.

"We don't tour our horns loudly," she said, referring to Bush initiatives on Bureau of Indian Affairs school construction, education, consultation and tribal colleges. "We need to get one-on-one with tribes," she added.

Like Johnson, McKeag urged tribes to work with members of both political parties, particularly those in Congress. For years, she said "Democrats took tribes for granted [while] Republicans wrote them off," but that has changed as tribes increase their participation in the political process.

Mike Goze, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, is an aide to assistant secretary Dave Anderson. He said the Republican victory on Tuesday will give his boss more time to implement his "visionary" agenda of improving educational opportunities for the 50,000 Native students who attend BIA schools.

The BIA plans to implement programs that will prepare students to become the new leaders of Indian Country, Goze said. Anderson believes the road to tribal self-sufficiency starts with education, he said.

"We get to look forward to four more years in putting together this puzzle," Goze said.

Andrew Lee, a member of the Seneca Nation from New York, said he was optimistic about Indian Country's future. "I would look at it even more than four years," he said. "The long-term outlook ... is very good."

As executive director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Development, he said true change is coming from tribes, not the federal government. He cited success stories of tribes around the nation that are improving economic opportunities on reservations by taking greater control of their destinies.

Next week, Harvard will release a report that assesses economic conditions on reservations and shows how gaming and other opportunities have improved life for Native Americans, Lee said. "We have lots of good reason to be optimistic about our future," he said.

Traci McClellan, Cherokee from Oklahoma, focused on efforts of the National Indian Health Board to pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. She said tribes, members of Congress and the Bush administration have come together to create a package that will benefit Native people.

The bill is awaiting passage after gaining approval from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee. McClellan said Congressional leaders expect to bring it up for a vote when they return to work later this month.

Beyond that, she said tribes want to increase the budget for the Indian Health Service because statistics show the federal government spends more on heath care for prisoners than for Native Americans. She also noted that the Department of Health and Human Services, under Secretary Tommy Thompson, is finalizing a consultation policy. Comments are being accepted until this month.

"I'm hopeful, cautiously optimistic" about the upcoming administration concluded McClellan, who will be the new executive director of the National Indian Council on Aging.

Milton Bluehouse Jr., a member of the Navajo Nation, works for his tribe's Washington, D.C., office. As a legislative assistant, he emphasized the tribe's efforts to gain bipartisan support for important issue such as veterans' care. Republican and Democrat members of Congress are working to bring a Veterans Affairs clinic to the reservation.

"The decisions we make on Election Night impact our communities at home," he told the audience.

The panel was moderated by Russ Tall Chief, a member of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. He coordinates the National Native American Youth Initiative, an effort of the Association of American Indian Physicians, to draw more Natives into the medical field.

"I think we have good reason to be optimistic in that area," he said, pointing to programs at IHS and other federal health and science agencies that offer opportunities to young Natives.

Rick West, the director of NMAI, said the forum was offered to give the audience a unique perspective on the relationship between the federal government and tribes. He praised the "unprecedented" turnout of Native American voters at the polls this year.

Relevant Links:
National Museum of the American Indian -
Native Vote 2004 -
National Congress of American Indians -
National Indian Health Board -