On December 31st, a 66-year old Cheyenne River Sioux man died after a doctor told ambulance drivers to "take him back to his residence or dump him in a ditch" because there wasn't money for his care, recounted President of the National Congress of Indian Americans (NCAI), Joe A. Garcia, in his State of Indian Nations address on February 10th.
During his campaign, President Obama promised to appoint a Native policy advisor to his senior staff and holding a yearly summit at the White House for tribal leaders. He met with Pueblo leaders in New Mexico and was even adopted by the Crow nation in Montana.
President Garcia called on President Obama and the 111th Congress to build on those promises by investing $6.4 billion in Indian Country. As of February 13th, it looks like American Indian Nations are going to get between $3 billion and $4.2 billion in funds and bonds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which Congress finally passed after much compromise and debate. Although this falls short of what NCAI had hoped, it is an enormous improvement over the status quo.
American Indian economies have improved under tribal leadership since Indian self-determination began in 1975 with the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. NCAI statistics show an 83% increase (adjusted for inflation) in per capita income over the past 30 years, compared to a 64 % increase for the U.S. population overall. However, average per capita income in Indian Country is still 1/3 the U.S. average, and the recession is hitting poor communities hard.
Alaskan tribal members are having to choose between food and heating, said President Garcia, and there is currently no federal assistance to help them. American Indians suffer a life expectancy five-years shorter than average, the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the world, 40% higher infant mortality, and a teen suicide rate twice that of the national average. They rarely go to the doctor unless it's an emergency, said President Garcia, and when they do the facilities are so poor that "... It's like stepping into a clinic from 1975." Public safety is another major concern: American Indians and Alaska Natives are subject to twice the rate of aggravated assault as the rest of Americans. (See HCN article "Misplaced Jurisdiction," Jan. 21st 2008)
The economic stimulus package will deliver $415 million to improve health facilities and $85 million for services. In addition to a competitive, $1 billion community policing program, the economic stimulus designates $225 million for jail construction and $22.5 million for grants for reducing violence against women. Although NCAI requested more than $450 million for the languishing Indian education system, it will only receive about $200 million in direct funds--which many found disappointing. However, tribes will be eligible for portions of several billion dollar national education initiatives, such as Impact Aid, Early Head Start and the Special Education (IDEA) program.
Other appropriations for Native Nations include billions of dollars for BIA administration, energy and water development, infrastructure, and economic growth.
Tribal leaders share national angst about the stimulus package. No one knows yet if this infusion of funds will work. However, the significant inclusion of Native interests in the package is an important signal that the Obama administration will back up its promises with action. "I hope, as the President says, that the waiting is over," concluded Gracia, "because Indians have been waiting a long, long time for the government's actions to meet our own."