By LAUREN ZINGARELLI
Feb. 27, 2008
Joe A. Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, called on Congress to improve the disparities of American Indians in the sixth annual State of Indian Nations Address held recently at Washington’s National Press Club. In an effort to raise awareness, the address was progressive and emphasized the importance of future congressional legislation.
In a community of failing health care, economic development, education, and law enforcement, Congress has continued to neglect improving the quality of life for Americans Indians, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Garcia was joined by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ark., in addressing these issues and asking Congress to support her initiatives in the upcoming year.
“Congress cannot do right by Indian Country, we cannot do right by Indian Country if we do not listen to Indian Country,” said Murkowski, who has served on the Indian Affairs Committee for the past four years, most recently as vice chairman.
One of the biggest initiatives Murkowski is pushing is health-care reform legislation. This legislation is imperative to the American Indian community, which has not seen improvement to their health services in the past 16 years, according to Murkowski. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007, which would revise and extend the act, is currently under review in both houses of Congress.
Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif., was one of the first to become active in pursuing American Indian health care reform when he introduced the Health Care Equality and Accountability Act in 2005.
“To sit by and do nothing is both shameful and unacceptable,” Honda said in an e-mail. “We all must do our part to give Indian Nations an equal chance to live and grow in a way that is consistent with their values and heritage.”
In addition to health care issues, the speech addressed problems of decreased economic development, inequality of education and increased violence in American Indian communities.
In the address, Garcia pointed out that these disparities are affecting American Indian children the most. He disputed President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, saying American Indian children “are still being left behind and this must change.”
Garcia also criticized Bush’s new economic stimulus plan. When the unemployment rate averages 49 percent, the Indian Nation is in a perpetual recession that cannot be improved by a “multibillion-dollar stimulus package that does not help our communities,” he said.
The question that remains is how Congress will answer the call of the Indian Country. At a time when political campaigning and elections are at a peak, widespread congressional support for American Indian issues is at a low, Garcia said.
“There are no guarantees in Congress. It is a presidential year and Congress tends to be more into politicking than passing legislation,” said Heather Thompson, director of government affairs for the National Congress of American Indians. “We’re certainly hopeful that Congress has heard our call for assistance and that we see improvement in the upcoming year.”
However, with the premise of change resonating in some presidential campaigns and the emphasis of minority support in such big states as California and Arizona, some wonder why the disparities of American Indians have not been recognized by presidential hopefuls.
Garcia said that the National Congress of American Indians is non-partisan and does not support one candidate in particular.
“We leave that to the Indian Country in each region,” he said.