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Inequities in Indian funding: ‘Rich get richer’

September 2, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Few groups of people in America are poorer or more dependent on the federal government than the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota. One of every two tribal members on its barren reservation can’t find work.

But the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides funds to the Rosebud Sioux at a fraction of the rate it does many wealthier tribes because of the wide disparities in how the agency distributes money.

The Rosebud Sioux receive about $225 per tribal member from the BIA, while tribes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the Pacific Northwest and other regions get as much as $1,000 per capita and more, according to an Associated Press analysis. Some tribes in Oklahoma and elsewhere receive less than $100 per capita.

It’s as if the government were to give Connecticut, a relatively wealthy state, five times as much as assistance as Mississippi.

And the gap between tribes grows year by year: Annual funding increases are made at the same rate for every reservation.

``The rich get rich and the poor get poorer,″ said Russell ``Bud″ Mason, chairman of North Dakota’s Three Affiliated Tribes.

The Senate, however, is set to debate legislation this month that could lead to relatively wealthy tribes being cut off the federal dole.

``All tribes have needs, but the tribes with the greatest needs and poorest situations should be, at the least, given some level of preference,″ said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

Gorton inserted a provision in the Interior Department’s 1998 appropriation bill that would require tribes to begin reporting their income to the BIA. It’s a first step toward requiring BIA to fund tribes according to need.

BIA officials say it’s politically impossible for them to redistribute the money.

The agency funds almost every function of tribal government on reservations like the Rosebud, from social services, to law enforcement, land management and road maintenance. This year the bureau distributed $681 million to the nation’s 554 tribes.

When the BIA first started funding tribal governments in the 1930s the money was apportioned according to population. That started to change in the 1960s and 1970s, BIA officials say.

Tribes with influential representatives in Congress, such as former Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington, longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, got more money. So did tribes that took over management of BIA services or won rights to water and other natural resources and needed federal money to enforce them.

That extra money subsequently was built into the tribes’ annual funding base regardless of whether the tribes’ needs changed.

The result was that tribes that have been the most successful in developing their natural resources; or at starting casinos, resorts and other businesses; or in lobbying Congress are also among the best funded by the BIA. Often that means tribes rich in timber and other resources or those located near major cities.

Tribes in the Pacific Northwest receive nearly twice the amount per capita that tribes in the Dakotas get on average and nearly eight times the share for the Cherokee and other tribes in eastern Oklahoma.

In Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Indian country, an estimated 12 percent, received $3.6 million in BIA funding this year. That works out to $1,234 for each of the 2,900 tribal members living on or near the reservation.

``Tribes out here have taken over the management of natural resources,″ Bob Whitener, executive director of the Washington’s Squaxin Island tribe. ``We are extremely efficient. We spend far less doing the work than the states or the feds do.″

New Mexico’s Mescalero Apache tribe, which operates a popular mountain resort and other businesses and has virtually no unemployment, got $941 per tribal member.

``It was hard to control and keep the per-capita allocation system going,″ said Michael Anderson, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

``To right that in the 1990s and to try to achieve equity ... is going to be very difficult. It’s a political process. For us to come in and reduce a tribe’s baseline is something the tribes would strongly object to.″

Even when Congress has tried to address the funding disparity it hasn’t always hit the mark. BIA was given $2 million this year in extra money to distribute to tribes deemed ``small and needy.″ All the tribes that shared the money were small _ under 1,500 members _ but not all were needy.

About $28,000 went to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux, a tribe that makes so much money from its casino in the Minneapolis suburbs that it reportedly gives as much as $700,000 a year to each tribal member.

Wealthy tribes like the Shakopee are an exception, tribal leaders say.

Indeed, a recent study by the General Accounting Office found that 40 percent of the Indian gambling revenue nationwide goes to just eight casinos.

More than 200 Indian leaders are coming to Washington this week to lobby against Gorton’s provision and a second, equally unpopular, measure that seeks to strip tribes of their immunity against lawsuits.

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