Native Americans began pitching their teepees on the Mall and their stories to the news media Monday, part of a lobbying campaign to overturn deep cuts the Senate has voted in Indian programs.
Gaiashkbos, president of the National Congress of American Indians, told reporters the hundreds of Native American leaders who have gathered in Washington this week would be aggressive. “They’re going to get sick and tired of seeing our faces in the halls of Congress,” he declared.
But in these days of spending cuts, the Native Americans are likely to discover that many of their traditional political allies have abandoned them in the face of the new pressures to create a balanced budget. Reassembling the coalition of Eastern liberals and Western lawmakers who long have sustained programs for the government’s Native Americans will not be easy, a number of Capitol Hill officials said. “It’s going to be damn difficult,” said Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., the only Native American in Congress.
Monday the Native Americans’ rhetoric appeared aimed largely at Republicans, with many denouncing the Senate vote as part of the GOP’s “Contract with America” and another broken promise by a government which has signed more than 800 treaties with the tribes. “Great nations, like great men, should keep their promises,” said Jesse Taken Alive, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas.
Others targeted what they described as a long-standing animosity by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee overseeing the BIA, toward Indians. “We think there is a lot of bitterness that Sen. Gorton is carrying,” said Henry M. Cagey, chairman of the Lummi tribe from Washington state.
Cagey and others suggested that the senator’s attitude toward Native American programs may have been shaped by his celebrated clashes as Washington state attorney general with several tribes, including the Lummi, over fishing rights, among other issues. Cagey suggested that the senator may be using his position to get back at the Washington tribes.
Gorton denied Monday he was out to get even with the Indians. “That simply isn’t true,” he said. “Do I have very different views from them on some issues of tribal sovereignty. I certainly do.” For example, Gorton said he believed that “the right of self-determination,” the current federal policy toward tribal governments, “does carry a certain duty of self-support.”
Indian tribes, unlike the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution also funded by his subcommittee “do have other resources” for their programs, Gorton said. Tribal governments can raise funds from taxes, he noted. The senator also denied that he singled out Native Americans to bear the brunt of cuts in the Interior Department.
Cagey noted that a Gorton-sponsored provision in the appropriations bill specifically targets Washington state tribes by cutting their federal funds in half if they take any “unilateral action that adversely impact the existing rights” of non-Indians living on their reservations. Indians said that relates to a dispute over water sales for 81 new homes planned on the Lummi reservation near Bellingham. Native Americans called Gorton’s amendment an outright attack on the sovereignty of tribal governments, as offensive as the cuts in Indian programs which the senator pushed through the Senate last month.
Those cuts are expected to trigger layoff notices to one in four of BIA’s 12,000 workers and a cut of $160 million in tribal grants. Together those cuts will deliver what one Senate aide called “a double whammy” to the 554 federally recognized tribes. Overall, the Senate has voted to cut the Clinton administration’s proposed $1.7 billion BIA budget by $434 million, a cut of 26 percent.
Some on Capitol Hill, citing the 61-36 vote by which the Senate refused Aug. 9 to restore $200 million in cuts to the BIA, suggested that the Indians face a bipartisan challenge. Not only must they overcome Gorton’s opposition, but they must win back the support of a number of Democratic liberals who deserted them in that key vote.