March 13, 2009

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Hears Concerns, Priorities at Tribal Leaders Summit

The urgent need to strengthen health care funding and increase health care availability and quality emerged as the top concern of tribal leaders from across the United States at a Tribal Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C., Thursday, March 5, with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Leaders from 224 Indian tribes took part in the session, which lasted eight and one half hours. It was convened by Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (D-ND). The Tribal Summit was more evidence that Dorgan intends to keep his promise to consult widely with tribes about federal policy that affects them.
Dorgan and Committee Vice Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY) chaired the summit. “As we address these issues,” Dorgan said, “we need to remember we do so with a history of treaty commitments and promises made by the federal government to Native Americans. We need to keep those commitments and promises.”
In addition to health care, other top issues spotlighted at the summit included public safety and justice, transportation, economic development and lands issues.
Many tribal leaders voiced support for Dorgan’s effort to win enactment of legislation to reauthorize and reform the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Dorgan is consulting the tribes before introducing a bill in this Congress. Last year, his legislation cleared the U.S. Senate but did not pass the House due to a controversial, unrelated amendment.
Several tribal leaders also asked that when the federal government acts on Indian health care issues, it recognize the rural nature of where many Indians live and address the special problems created by distance.
Additional funding for tribal law enforcement, including juvenile delinquency prevention and detention facilities funding were also top priorities frequently discussed.
Tribes asked for a focus on economic development investments in Indian country. Among reforms requested was a change in the law that currently limits the ability of tribal governments to issue tax exempt bonds, like state and local governments, to encourage investment for on-reservation business development projects.
Finally, several tribal leaders urged quick congressional action in response to the Carcieri v Salazar Supreme Court decision regarding land into trust. Dorgan said he will schedule a hearing on the issue to ensure the committee thoroughly understands the ramifications of the ruling and what, if anything, Congress needs to do in response to it.