American Indian leaders from Eastern Washington and North Idaho joined nearly 100 other tribal leaders Tuesday on the west steps of the Capitol, urging lawmakers to retreat from proposed cuts in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Members of the tribal coalition, wearing bright red and blue robes, ankle bells and moccasins, marched from nearby tepees to the Capitol steps, where they danced and chanted to drums amid the wafting smoke of sweet grass.
They were joined by other Indians in business suits, sneakers and boots, who took turns denouncing the proposed cuts to a small group of protesters and tourists.
“The reason we are here is to stand up for what was promised,” said Warren Seyler, chairman of the Spokane Tribe. “We gave up all the land, and they promised to provide our education, our health care and to protect our natural resources and children.”
Last month, the Senate approved a $434 million, or 25 percent, cut in the BIA’s $1.7 billion annual budget, arguing the cuts were necessary to protect the Indian Health Service budget and other Indian programs.
In response, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Ada E. Deer is moving to send out layoff notices to 4,000 BIA employees, about one-third of its personnel, by Sept. 25. Although she disapproves of the proposed cuts, she said, federal law requires ample notice to workers.
As word of the layoffs spread, tribal leaders organized the Washington protests to try to persuade senators to reverse course. The House has voted to cut 3 percent of the budget, and the two chambers will have to meet to seek a compromise.
Local tribal leaders say the cuts would mean they would be forced to fire police officers, skimp on meal services for the elderly and scale back judicial systems.
“Any further cuts in our existing funds would simply be devastating,” said Sam Perry, chairman of Nez Perce tribe in Idaho.
Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who penned the proposed cuts, said the Indians’ complaints are overdramatized.
“All Americans are going to have to take part in balancing the budget,” said a Gorton representative. “The Indians actually are taking a smaller reduction than some of the other accounts in the budget.”
Gorton is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Interior Subcommittee.
The proposed budget cuts await consideration by a joint conference committee, probably next week. They must pass by President Clinton to become law.
Although the committee cut money for Indian Affairs, it increased dollars for Indian Health Services.
Local tribal leaders said that is no compensation, especially because the federal government agreed to help and protect American Indians in exchange for their surrenders in the last century.
“They don’t understand treaty rights,” Seyler said. “They don’t understand the special relationship that Indians have with the U.S. government.”
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has recommended Clinton veto the Senate appropriations bill because of the cuts made to environmental, natural resource and tribal programs.
“I think what’s happening under the BIA budget is something we’ve got to turn around,” he said. “We can’t let it stand.”
Some Indians said they believed Congress was cutting their funding in the mistaken belief that tribes were getting rich off gambling casinos.
In fact, Indian leaders say, only 20 percent of the nations’s 554 federally recognized tribes have some kind of gaming and fewer than 5 percent of tribes are earning enough from their card games and slot machines to reverse years of poverty and despair.
Federal statistics say 32 percent of the nearly 2 million Native Americans live in poverty, compared with 13 percent of the general population. Only half of homes on reservations have telephones, the government says, and one in five have indoor toilets.
Three of the 10 poorest counties in the country are on Indian reservations in South Dakota. Additionally, Indians continue to have among the highest diabetes, alcoholism, high school dropout and infant mortality rates in the country. And on many reservations the unemployment rate varies between 40 and 90 percent, according to labor statistics.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Native American demographics
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = David A. Lieb Staff writer Wire services contributed to this report.