WASHINGTON – Usually, appropriations hearings in Congress are laundry-list affairs where lawmakers hear representatives of communities, programs and other interests rattle off requests for money in the upcoming budget.
John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, took a longer view Tuesday.
Without getting into specific numbers, Steele painted a bleak picture of his Pine Ridge reservation and what he described as Third World conditions: rutted roads, substandard health care, deplorable living conditions and rampant poverty. He largely blamed the United States government for failing to live up to the treaties it signed with tribes to provide basic services.
“We do need some help, and I just wanted to come say that we have this unique relationship through the treaty that must be honored,” he told members of the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department. The Vietnam War veteran told lawmakers that the injustice was magnified because many Indians had gone to war for the very country that betrays them.
“We go do our duty for the United States, for our country; we fight for freedom,” he said. “The United States government says it’s deplorable how the Indians were treated in the past. It’s not the past. It’s today that they’re being treated that way. Why?”
Steele was among more than 30 representatives from tribes across the country who testified Tuesday in hopes of securing more money for housing, transportation, public safety and other services. For tribes that don’t receive much income from casinos or other private sources, federal aid is often the largest slice of their funding pie.
That’s a problem when Washington is looking for ways to cut spending, not increase it.
President Obama’s 2012 budget for Indian Country would boost aid for some key programs: an additional $20 million over 2010 levels for public safety; an increase of $42 million to strengthen relationships among Indian nations; and $571 million more for Indian Health Service programs. But it’s iffy whether any of those increases will get past the Republican-controlled House, where GOP leaders say Obama’s nearly $3.5 billion budget plan is dead on arrival because it would add $1.3 trillion to an already mushrooming national debt. The House has begun work on the 2012 spending plan, which would take effect Oct. 1.
“I can’t predict what will happen as we move forward,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a member of the Chickasaw Nation. “We live in an era of trillion-and-a-half-dollar deficits. That’s not sustainable. But I can assure you this committee is going to do everything it can on a bipartisan basis to protect and build on these very critical programs.”
Dave Archambault II, a tribal councilman at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, which straddles North Dakota and South Dakota, picked up on Steele’s theme. He told lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing that they should consider adding millions for tribal colleges, law enforcement agencies, courts and road maintenance – not only because treaties demand it, but because it’s the right thing to do.
He spoke about how, only a few decades ago, the government flooded more than 50,000 acres of prime farmland on the reservation so it could build the Oahe Dam and power plant, which now provides electricity to South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Montana and North and South Dakota.
“We did uphold our end of the treaties for almost 200 years now. Our end has been upheld with great sacrifices,” Archambault said. “The reason why I’m here is to ask that you take that into consideration and remember that as you go through this 2012 budgeting process.”
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