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Old 02-06-2006, 01:51 PM   #1
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You Don't Know Jack....article by Tex Hall

San Francisco Chronicle

American Indians and the Abramoff Scandal

You don't know Jack

- Tex G. Hall

Friday, January 27, 2006

I decided to write this column because, before this whole Abramoff

affair goes any further, America needs to hear from American Indians

themselves.



There are three points that I want to the country to hear: First, we

condemn the corruption associated with Abramoff; second, we support

wholeheartedly the need for lobbying reform; and third, and most

important, America needs to understand that this scandal is

deflecting attention from an even more important scandal -- the

poverty on Indian reservations.



If the American people could get Congress to focus on the third-world

health care, crumbling schools, washed-out roads, diabetes, suicide

and domestic violence rates that plague Indian reservations -- with

the same intensity that they are bringing to lobbying reform -- then

maybe millions of American Indians who live far away from Washington,

D.C., could go to bed thinking that the federal government actually

works.



Now that I think about it, as long as the Justice Department is

investigating what happened to all of Abramoff's money, maybe they

could investigate what happened to all the treaty promises that have

been broken. Why is it, for instance, that despite the promise of

doctors and hospitals in exchange for our land, the government,

according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, spends more than

twice as much on average for prisoner health care than for Indian

health care?



Let me get back to my first point. Everyone knows that bribing public

officials is wrong. Unfortunately, it seems to be ingrained in

political culture that, to gain access to elected officials, you have

to agree to play by Washington's rules. Maybe Ralph Reed said it

best: "In public policy," he wrote, "it matters less who has the best

arguments and more who gets heard -- and by whom."



Enter Jack Abramoff. Along with his friends and associates, he

targeted a handful -- six, to be exact -- of Indian tribes to finance

his empire on the Potomac. What, exactly, happened? As far as I can

tell, the Abramoff crew took advantage of the Indian tribes' goodwill

and bankrolls to the tune of $82 million in order to pay for their

own mansions, exotic trips and think tanks -- you get the picture.

Which is: A few Indian tribes get scammed, a bunch of lobbyists and

congressmen and staff get greedy (and later nailed), some promises

get made and a casino gets shut down, and then Congress starts

falling over itself to enact lobbying reform. Meanwhile, nearly al l

federal Indian health care, education, housing, water, energy,

heating and roads programs are getting cut.



Let me be the first to say: We were cheated. Maybe if Indian tribes

were remotely benefiting from Abramoff's schemes, then those beating

their chests about the taint of tribal casino money might have a leg

to stand on. The fundamental mistake they are making, however, is

that Indian tribes are somehow running around waving fistfuls of cash

in the air. Sure, there are some wealthy tribes out there. But only

20 percent of Indian casinos are doing really well, according to

Indian Country Today; the rest are only marginally profitable. The

reality, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, is that Native

Americans still live in poverty at a rate more than twice the

national average. We have the same economic disparity problems that

we had before Abramoff, and I bet we are going to have the same

problems after Abramoff.



Meanwhile, what exactly is happening to the message of tribal leaders

and advocates fighting day-to-day to improve our living conditions on

the reservations? That message is getting lost. Which brings me to my

second point -- Congress really does need to reform. Indian Country

supports lobbying reform as much as anyone. Think about it -- Indians

are the ones who were cheated in this deal and are now being blamed.

It doesn't take a degree in rocket science (or anthropology) to see

that the system is not working in our favor.



Fortunately, this can change. I am glad that such public officials as

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., believe that

government can do better and are willing to fight the system to make

it so. Let's end lavish junkets, football skybox seats and five-star

dinners. Most important, let's make this a fair game. Why shouldn't

Ryan Wilson -- who, as president of the National Indian Education

Association, is fighting for decent Indian school meals and the same

basic textbooks that other American children get -- have the same

access to congressional leadership as the head of a Fortune 500

corporation?



But let's also be clear on one thing: Neither Indian tribes nor

casinos are the problem. If you listened to our critics, you'd think

that corruption in Washington was a phenomenon that began in 1988,

after Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Indian tribes

are governments, just like states, counties and cities. Therefore,

any lobbying reform must deal with tribes in the same manner as it

treats other governments.



Remember, we didn't make up these rules. Of course, we are more than

happy to join in and help improve the system. In return, all we ask

is that we be treated fairly, and that the United States live up to

the promises it made to us.



At the end of the day, reform to us really means safe schools, access

to doctors, living to age 80, roads, heating and electricity, as well

as opportunity for our children. If by now you don't know that, then

you don't know Jack.



Tex G. Hall, a.k.a. Red Tipped Arrow, is chairman of the Mandan,

Hidatsa Arikara Nation in North Dakota and past president of the

National Congress of American Indians, which he led from 2001-2005.
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