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U.S. Government Grants to Native Americans

This paper discusses some of the issues surrounding the grant process with regard to Native Americans. It also discusses Native American issues with regard to politics and legislation.

U.S. Government Grants to Native Americans

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Introduction

The history of the U.S. government’s involvement with the indigenous people of the nation is a sorry one indeed. In the push West, an entire culture was destroyed, and the survivors herded onto reservations, where many continue to live in poverty.
The government, which assumed the attitude of a caretaker toward the Native Americans long ago, continues this support through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior.

This paper considers the case of “Alexander Eaglefly”, who is the Chief of the “Mohave Desert Indian Tribe”, and who has just received a grant from “Joe Lackluster,” the bureau chief of the local Interior Department office; the grant is in the amount of $128,500. We’ll answer the following questions: What was the process by which Mr. Eaglefly received the grant? What is the power the Congress used to issue it; i.e., what are the legislative issues behind funding the grant? What impact would party politics have on the process? What is the power of oversight? Which PACs and SIGS might have been involved in this issue, and how? How could the President have used his executive power in this situation? And finally, how might the judiciary become involved?

The Process of Receiving the Grant

In the last 200 years, Congress has passed more legislation dealing with Native Americans than with any other group. The primary responsibility for Indian affairs rests with the Department of the Interior (DOI); specifically the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The responsibility and authority for managing funds held in trust for Indian Tribes and individuals, which was a primary function of the BIA, was transferred to the Office of Special Trustee for American Indians in 1996. (“Bureau of Indian Affairs,” PG). (Note that the government continues to hold money “in trust” for the Indians. In effect, the Indians cannot determine their own future.)

The vast majority of Native Americans live in extreme poverty, usually on the money doled out by the government; they remain largely unassimilated into mainstream American life. “The BIA provides services directly or through contracts, grants [my emphasis], or compacts to 554 Tribes with diverse needs, 330 in the 48 contiguous U.S. and 224 in Alaska.” (“Bureau of Indian Affairs,” PG). Thus, our first question is partially answered: Mr. Eaglefly got his grant money from the BIA, though the head of the local DOI office delivered it.

We’re not told what the grant is for; however, the BIA provides money for a great many essential services and programs. These services are administered “either by the Tribes or BIA,” so we can assume that Mr. Eaglefly is administering a program for the Mohave Desert Tribe himself, as Chief, rather than having the BIA do it. Undoubtedly the most important program for which the BIA provides funding is education. Within the Tribes, there are “52,400 elementary and secondary students” and “24 tribally controlled community colleges.” The Bureau also funds detention and law enforcement services on over 200 reservations; social services programs for the elderly, families, children and the disabled; it manages natural resources on Indian trust land; and it maintains roads and dams, to name a few. (“Bureau of Indian Affairs,” PG).

Because the main BIA website is down (this information is from the description of the BIA provided by the Department of the Interior) I can’t tell what specific programs it funds with grants. (Searches using parameters such as “BIA grants to tribes” yield over 25,000 hits!) But I think it’s safe to assume that Mr. Eaglefly and the tribal elders identified a problem specific to the Mohave Desert Tribe, put together the necessary paperwork, and applied for a grant to fix the problem or administer the required service.

They would have applied directly to the BIA, which lists a “Grants” page as part of the site. And the money was supplied to the tribe, rather than being administered by the BIA on the tribe’s behalf, because of the policy of “Indian self-determination.” That is, the tribes are contracting to do most of the work, and administer their own programs themselves, rather than having the BIA continue to assume a paternalistic role and handle the programs for them.

Party Politics, Legislative Issues and the Grant

In general (and this is a gross oversimplification), if we look at the two major political parties, it is far more likely that Democrats would be sympathetic to Indian problems than Republicans. Traditionally, Democrats have either supported, or been in sympathy with, causes such as women’s rights, organized labor, and civil rights, including the rights of Native Americans. Republicans are more often seen as the party of “big business.”

The Native American population is largely poor; it is also a small group, comprising approximately 1% of the population. Their size and extreme poverty renders them invisible to a political system that increasingly obeys the wealthy and powerful. Therefore, it’s more likely that it would be a Democratic administration than a Republican one that would fund the grant.
In fact, in August 1995, the Republican Congress passed legislation that slashed the BIA budget by a third. One of the main supporters of the cuts, Republican Senator Slade Gorton of Washington State, has what some call a “long-standing antipathy” toward Native American tribal rights. Apparently much like those who believe blacks, having been freed over 130 years ago, should just “shut up and get on with it,” Gorton ignores the realities of life on the reservations. He, like many conservatives, feels that the Federal government shouldn’t help anyone in perpetuity.

However, this stance ignores the fact that the Indian tribes are one of the few American groups that have warred against the government as sovereign nations, have voluntarily surrendered their arms and moved onto reservations in exchange for “explicit guarantees” of their well-being. (Van Biema, PG). In his belief that every American should have to work for what he gets, he ignores the fact that there is no work for the Native Americans, whose unemployment rate ranges up to 85% in Pine Ridge; he also suggests cutting funds for people who live in unimaginable poverty. In many cases, whole families are crammed into one-room shacks; the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is the most impoverished spot in the nation. Republicans however tend to champion the idea that no one deserves extended assistance, and that everyone, if he only works hard enough, can succeed. This is patently untrue, and so I would expect that the grant came from a Democratic Congress.

Power of Oversight

The “power of oversight” is an implied power, rather than one that is directly expressed in the law. (“Oversight” in this case means “supervise” rather than “fail to notice.”) In this case, Congress has the power of oversight with regard to Native American affairs. An organization called the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) is a watchdog, non-partisan group that keeps an eye on the government with particular regard to the activities it oversees, including Native American affairs. (“Congressional Oversight,” PG).

Which PACs and SIGs Might Have Been Involved, and How

Almost all tribes now lobby Congress as individual entities. (This makes sense, as the Seminoles in central Florida might not face the same problems as the Apache in Arizona.) Some do it directly, but those that have made some money hire prestigious Washington, D.C. firms to put pressure on legislators in their behalf.

“Ten years ago, hardly any tribes hired lobbyists to work Congress on their behalf; now, at least 14 do. Topping the heap, the well-heeled Mississippi Choctaws have paid $7 million since 1995 to Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds LLP, a tony lobbying and law firm.” (Meatto, PG).

This is hardly the norm, however. There are only a few tribes doing “spectacularly well”; most are sunk in poverty. However, they have learned that money is the most effective tool to use in dealing with the American government, and so they even the poorest tribes first try to safeguard their right to have legalized gambling on their reservations.

Once they have some income, they can begin to use it to influence legislation in their favor, just like the major U.S. corporations do. (Meatto, PG).
Native American political action committees and special interest groups range from student groups such as the United Native American Students at Purdue to the professional lobbying firm Legi\X in Washington, D.C.

Presidential Power

It seems that Bill Clinton was the first President in history to actually meet with, and take a significant interest in Native Americans. A Google search for “Bill Clinton Native American leaders” yielded over 15,000 hits. A similar search for “President George W. Bush Junior Native American leaders” yielded 9, including two that seek impeachment.
On February 25, 2000, President Clinton called for a significant increase in funding for the Tribes:

“Today at the White House, President Clinton, joined by tribal and Congressional leaders, called for passage of his $9.4 billion Native American FY2001 budget initiative. The initiative calls for an increase in funding of $1.2 billion over FY 2000 – the largest increase ever.” (“President Clinton: Calling for Passage…,” PG).

The powers of the President are both expressed and implied. The Constitution grants him certain powers in writing; others are his by common consent—for instance, most people expect that the President will campaign for members of his party, but there’s nothing written that says he must do so. Additionally, a President sends a strong message by the people he chooses to work with him, and the issues he embraces.

Bill Clinton, as we might recall, said he was determined to make his Cabinet “look like America,” and so he appointed blacks, women, Hispanics and other minorities to high office in record numbers. President Bush (Junior) has surrounded himself with hard-line right-wing “hawks” whose ideology is for war and power. In such a climate, we would not expect tribal interests to find a sympathetic ear.

Judicial Involvement

The judicial branch of government gets involved in Native American affairs in a number of ways. It is crucial in hearing cases brought by the tribes, particularly as they seek to retain the right to have legalized gambling on their lands.

Another issue involving the courts is the disproportionate number of Native Americans in state and federal prisons. They, like members of other minorities, are over-represented in prison populations, and the situation is alarming: “According to US Department of Justice statistics, American Indians had a per capita rate of prison incarceration about 38% higher than the national rate.” (Steinberger, PG). Thus, the plight of Native Americans touches all branches of government.

Conclusion

Native Americans have a rich and colourful history and tradition. It should be honoured and respected, not “steamrollered” by a government that has not honoured a single treaty ever made with the Indians. Giving grants to the tribes so that they can improve their situation themselves is only a small beginning toward solving an enormous problem.

References

Bureau of Indian Affairs [Web page]. Undated. Accessed: 20 May 2003. http://www.doi.gov/budget/1998/BIAsum.html

Congressional Oversight. [Web page]. Undated. Accessed: 20 May 2003. http://www.house.gov/rules/jcoc2aq.htm

LEGI\X. [Web site]. 2003. Accessed: May 21, 2003. http://www.legix.com/index.cfm

Meatto, Keith. “Tribal Politics.” Mojowire [Web site]. 28 July 2000. Accessed: 21 May 2003. http://www.motherjones.com/news_wire/nativelobby.html

“President Clinton: Calling for Passage of Historic Native American Initiative.” The White House at Work [Web site]. 25 Feb 2000. Accessed: 21 May 2003. http://clinton3.nara.gov/WH/Work/022500.html

Project on Government Oversight. [Web site]. 2003. Accessed: 21 May 2003. http://www.pogo.org/index.html

Steinberger, Ruth. “Incarcerated Indians.” Native Times.com [Web site]. 2000-2001. Accessed: 21 May 2003. http://www.okit.com/Justice4parts/justice1.html

Van Biema, David. “Bury My Heart in Committee.” Time 18 Sep 1995. Retrieved 21 May 2003 from ProQuest, San Diego Public Library, San Diego, CA: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?Did=000000007012146&Fmt=3&Deli=1&Mtd=1&Idx=5&Sid=1&RQT=309

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