Advocacy Group Fighting for Native Rights

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WASHINGTON -- The National Congress of American Indians was founded in the 1940s amid a flurry of federal proposals that sought to abrogate U.S. treaties and assimilate Indians into the American mainstream. Now, more than a half-century later, the umbrella advocacy organization comprised of nearly 200 Indian tribes finds itself in the "unenviable position" of fighting a similar battle as the 104th Congress swings its budget ax, according to a spokesman for the group.

"Tribal rights are being given short shrift," said Paul Moorehead, government affairs director for the National Congress of American Indians. "There is a determined effort on behalf of some people in Congress to liquidate tribal governments and return American Indians to the status of any other state citizen. But Indians have dual citizenship. They are citizens of their tribes and U.S. citizens. To deny them citizenship in their own tribe is not the aim but the likely consequence" of some of the proposals that surfaced recently.

One of the toughest legislative battles came in the wake of a proposal to tax tribal government gaming revenue. Opponents of the measure argued that tribes are governments and not for-profit institutions. Tribes, they said, used their gaming revenues for the same things states used their gaming revenues: schools, roads, jails, courts and social services. The measure failed, but the outlook is not as optimistic for other tribal programs.

Under the appropriations bill funding the Department of the Interior and related agencies, tribal priority funds will be cut by nearly 10 percent. Opponents say the cut will take a heavy toll on tribal services and employment on Indian reservations. The reservations already suffer from high unemployment -- 45 percent in the 1990 census -- and they rely heavily on transfer payments for survival. Half of the 2 million Native Americans reside on reservations.

Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the proposed cut, in effect, "turns our national priorities upside down." For the past decade, per capita federal spending for Indians has fallen significantly behind per capita federal spending on non-Indians, according to a Congressional Research Service study.

"Many years ago, our predecessors in the United States Senate ratified treaties made with tribal governments in exchange for land and peace. The United States Constitution calls these treaties the highest law of our land," McCain, R-Ariz., recently told his Senate colleagues. "Neither the passage of time nor the changing of the guard has eroded our legal obligations as a nation toward Native Americans and their tribal governments."

McCain is highly regarded for his active leadership on behalf of Native Americans. There are 21 Indian tribes in the state of Arizona, but his efforts extend beyond his constituency. …