Banner Year for American Indians on Capitol Hill

December 29, 2010 - 7:08 AM

Sen. Byron Dorgan

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. at a news conference on Capitol Hill on May 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

Washington (AP) - By any measure, 2010 was a banner year on Capitol Hill for American Indians.

And a huge factor was the pending retirement of a lone senator -- North Dakota's Byron Dorgan.

After years of trying, Congress passed several landmark bills for Indians, including laws overhauling tribal health care and law enforcement and settling a 15-year legal battle over lost royalties for mismanaged Indian lands.

Congress continued parceling out $2.5 billion in economic stimulus money to tribes and resolved four long-standing water disputes totaling more than $1 billion.

Tribal leaders and advocates call the two-year session that ended last week the most productive for American Indians in four decades. They offer several reasons, including strong support from the Obama administration, which has made tribal issues a priority.

And there was the Dorgan factor.

Dorgan, a Democrat, announced last January he wouldn't seek re-election after almost 30 years in Congress. Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he then "focused like a laser" on unfinished business, including the long-stalled bills on health care and crime.

"I was flat tired of working on these issues that were never resolved," he said in a recent interview in his Capitol office, which is adorned with Indian headdresses and tribal artwork. "I said, `We will get this done.' We can fix these issues by keeping a few promises."

Dorgan, 68, denies any attempt to craft a legacy, saying he merely wanted to complete legislation he had worked on for years.

"When children are dying and elders are dying, the time for talk is past," he said, noting that many Native Americans still "live in third world conditions in much of this country."

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Indian organization in the nation, said Dorgan's pending retirement spurred action.

"To be honest, we all knew Senator Dorgan wasn't going to run again. There were things he felt very passionate about and really wanted to get done," she said.

Dorgan, she added, was "a consistent, energetic and persistent advocate" willing to listen to other viewpoints and gain bipartisan support. "I think that's why you see so many things passed," she said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called Dorgan "a true champion" for Indian nations and rural communities.

The health care law, formally known as the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, was included in the larger health care overhaul passed by Congress last spring. It clears the way for more preventive care, boosts mental health resources and addresses recruiting and retaining physicians throughout Indian Country. It also focuses on teen suicide -- an epidemic on many reservations -- and improves treatment for diabetes, another chronic problem.

Dorgan said he told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid he would not vote for the larger health bill unless it included Indian health care. "That's not a threat, just a statement of fact," he said.

Dorgan also championed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which aims to give tribes more authority to combat crime on their reservations.

The measure authorizes more federal law enforcement officers and makes federal agencies collect data on crimes committed in Indian Country. It also requires the Justice Department to maintain criminal data on cases that U.S. attorneys decline to prosecute for various reasons, including a lack of evidence. A recent report found that federal officials decline to prosecute more than 50 percent of violent crimes on reservations.

On some reservations, fewer than a dozen officers patrol areas the size of Connecticut.

"If you report a rape, a cop might show up the next day," Dorgan said. "It's a full-blown scandal."

Congress approved $3.4 billion to settle the lost royalties case, which covers claims that Native Americans were swindled out of payments for oil, gas, timber and grazing rights for more than a century. As many as 500,000 American Indians will receive at least $1,500 apiece; some will get significantly more.

A total of $2 billion will be used to buy broken-up Indian lands from individual owners willing to sell, with the lands turned over to tribes. Another $60 million will go to a scholarship fund for young Indians.

The settlement was reached in late 2009, but was not approved by Congress until the lame-duck session that ended just before Christmas.

A separate settlement with the Agriculture Department will pay Indian farmers $680 million for improper denial of farm loans. The settlements and new laws, Dorgan said, are a matter of honor.

"We signed these treaties and made promises -- in writing -- and then broke them all," he said. "This is about keeping the country's promises."