Bury My Heart In Committee
"...Native Americans must sacrifice like other Americans."

"The Indians are taking it in the neck."

"To give more to the BIA would bluntly, have required us to give less to the national parks and cultural institutions which are our national heritage for everyone."

..."a third of the country's 2 million Native Americans live below the poverty line. On the reservations, where per capita incomes averages $4,500. half of all children under age six live below the line; 1 out of every 5 Indian homes lacks both a telephone and an indoor toilet."

"...the government spends $2,600 a year for the average American's health, but the average for Indians is only $1,300."

"With only 1,500 units for the reservation's [Pine Ridge] 26,000 people, tribal officials estimate that an average of 17 people are crammed into each dwelling."

"1,800 families have been officially designated as "in need of housing." Yet the only money available for building is $285,000 derived from federal Tribal Priority Allocation accounts, which probably will not even stretch to cover this year's 700 requests for weatherproofing."

It is estimated that the BIA is "so inefficient that even friends like McCain estimate that only 10 cents on every dollar it administers actually reaches the tribes."

As dreams go, Michael Little Boy Sr.'s is a modest one. He would like to move. Not into a mansion. But into someplace better than where he lives now. Little Boy, 41, lives in a one room shack. Along with him live his wife, five children and two nieces, nine people jammed into a space that measures 20 ft. by 20 ft. The house, on the Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux reservation [1,780,444 acres] in South Dakota, has one tiny window with a plastic pane. It is made of sheet rock and cheap wood siding. In winter the frigid South Dakota winds tears through it like a knife. When it rains, its dirt and sawdust floor becomes a swamp. Now, in a sweltering late summer, flies swarm in and out with impunity.

Little Boy does not have a job. He was a janitor once, and a tribal policeman for a while when his uncle was police commissioner.


...Eighty percent of the people are unemployed. Tribal chairmen and politicians, mostly half-bloods, hand out the few jobs there are to their relatives. The others are out. The name of the game is nepotism. But can you blame them when they give a much-needed job to a brother or nephew." Ohitika Woman, Mary Brave Bird, winner of the 1991 American Book Award, $12.00, paperback, ISBN-0-06-097583-0

But jobs on the Sioux's Pine Ridge reservation are so scare that only 1 out of every three adults has one. In fact, as in hundreds of other reservations where Third World conditions prevail, there is only one real source of income, only one source of medical services and food. There is only one real source of hope that someday Little Boy's family will be able to move out of squalor: the Federal Government. But the Federal Government is about to pull the plug.

"This amounts to cultural and economic genocide," says Ada Deer, Assistant Secretary of the Interior and head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A ferocious appropriations bill passed last month [September, '95] by the Senate, outdoing an only slightly less severe offering by the House, slashes the bureau's $1.7 billion budget a third. Deer has announced that the BIA may lay off up to 4,000 of its 12,000 employees by month's end, the drastic personnel cut currently being contemplated by any federal agency. Just as important, the Senate bill targets moneys that bulwark greater tribal autonomy. Says Kurt Russo, coordinator of the Treaty Task Force of Washington States Lummi Nation: "What you're seeing is a smart bomb going straight to the heart of the function of tribal governments."

Language of genocide is overused in American ethic politics, but in this case, the rhetoric of Deer and Russo was echoed by that of Senator John McCain. The Senator is a longtime supporter of Native of Native Americans but also a card-carrying conservative Republican. Says he: "The Indians are taking it in the neck." This week representatives of more than 200 tribes will flood the nation's capitol in a last ditch attempt to influence the conference that will reconcile the House and Senate versions of the cuts. But unless they provoke a huge public outcry, most of the cuts will probably stand, and the fortunes of an already unfortunate people may take another drastic downturn.

For most of the decade, legislators have maintained the budget affecting America's 555 recognized Indian tribes at a constant level. Deploring the inefficiency of the BIA, through which most Indian ear-marked money flows, Congress has attempted to funnel more money directly through it to the tribes. This year, however, fueled partly by Republican budget-cutting fervor and partly by what some call a longstanding antipathy toward tribal rights on the part of a powerful Senator, Washington's Slade Gorton, it ripped up the playbook. "We've never seen cuts like these," says Christopher Stearns, Democratic counsel to the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, which allocates money to tribes.

The downsizing of the BIA's bureaucracy bothers Indian advocates far less than the cuts in money earmarked for tribal governments. Tribal abilities to fight crime, provide sanitation, repair roads and administer dozens of other basic services would be endangered. The federal housing program that might have helped the Little Boy family would be cut 67 percent. The Agriculture Department's food program for Indians is scheduled to be folded into the food-stamp system, to the Indians disadvantage. The advocates fear that the cuts will not just shatter the dreams of individual Native Americans like Little Boy but also cripple Washington's efforts over the past 20 years to encourage tribal self-reliance and send Indians spinning into a void of isolation and poverty. "We are forgotten people," says Little Boy. "They are going to hurt us, but they don't care."

Defenders of the cuts argue, with some passion, that under Congress's new balanced-budget dispensation, all of government must become smaller, and Native Americans must sacrifice like other Americans. Says Senator Gorton, who are chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee overseeing Interior Department funding wrote some of the most drastic legislation: "To give more to the BIA would bluntly, have required us to give less to the national parks and cultural institutions which are our national heritage for everyone." This he refuses to do.

Yet the argument for equal distribution of pain may be seriously misguided in this case, for several reasons. The first is that the BIA, which makes up 26 percent of the Interior Department's budget, would absorb 45 percent of the department's overall reductions. The second has to do with the Indians abject destitution. Despite the arrival of gambling facilities on reservations, which has enriched a handful of tribes and made a few dozen more comfortable, a third of the country's 2 million Native Americans live below the poverty line. On the reservations, where per capita incomes averages $4,500. half of all children under age six live below the line; 1 out of every 5 Indian homes lacks both a telephone and an indoor toilet. Federal expenditures that reach the tribes are low enough as it is: according to Sterns, the government spends $2,600 a year for the average American's health, but the average for Indians is only $1,300.

The cuts may also be illegal, in a profound an historic way. When Indian advocates invoke the "special relationship" between the government and members of the Indian tribes, it may disturb citizens who believe all Americans to be equal under law. But few other American groups have warred as sovereign nations against the U.S. government [Red Cloud defeated the Army in the Black Hills and the Seminoles never surrendered]; and none, in return for laying down its arms and accepting life on reservations, has received explicit guarantees of its well-being. The 800 or more treaties signed with various tribes, sporadically upheld by the Supreme Court under a loose philosophy of "trusteeship," obligate the the government to maintain a reasonable level of education and health among tribal members and to protect their resources.


In all your enterprises for the good of your people, you may count with confidence on the aid and protection of the United States, and on the sincerity and zeal with which I am myself animated in the furthering of this humane work. You are our brethren of the same land; we wish you prosperity as brethren should do....Thomas Jefferson
Gorton points out that health and education fall outside the ambit of his subcommittee. Yet lapses in policing, child welfare and sanitation will have an indirect impact on health. And many tribes spend the discretionary funds he is imperiling on health and schooling. "Tribes are in desperate need of resources for educating children, for protecting abused and neglected children, for combating alcoholism and drug abuse, for fighting crime, for building roads and water and sewer systems," said Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, as he argued to reinstate Indian funding earlier this month. "And we, the Federal Government, have a special trust responsibility to provide those resources to tribes." His side lost by a vote of 61 to 36.

"Its not that people don't want to work," says Joe Blue Horse, director of the Pine Ridge reservation's federal food-distribution program. "It's that there is no work for them to do." There is no major commercial development near the reservation, which sits within South Dakota's Shannon County in the shadow of the Badlands, and no factories or malls. Construction work provides some labor: unemployment drops from 85 percent in winter to a still miserable 65 percent when it is warm enough to build. Oglala who have ventured off-reservation to find work have more often found alienation and a different kind of penury and have returned. All are almost totally dependent on the Federal Government, which long ago signed treaties with the Oglalas promising education, health and welfare.

Housing is the need that first assaults a visitor's eye. With only 1,500 units for the reservation's 26,000 people, tribal officials estimate that an average of 17 people are crammed into each dwelling. Many of the homes are not in much better shape than Little Boy's; 1,800 families have been officially designated as "in need of housing." Yet the only money available for building is $285,000 derived from federal Tribal Priority Allocation accounts, which probably will not even stretch to cover this year's 700 requests for weatherproofing. If the congressional cuts go through, that money will drop to $176,000.

Education is almost as ill-served. Leon Brave Heart, like an estimated 50 percent of the tribe has an alcohol problem; it caused him to drop out of school. But when his father died of cirrhosis of the liver and his mother was killed in a car crash, he dried out and returned to school. In San Francisco, he joined the Job Corps, specializing in cooking and culinary studies. Now the 22-year-old works at a tiny convenience store on the reservation while caring for 10 extended-family members who share a shack and a trailer. Brave Heart wants to go to college, but was told not to bother applying for a tribal grant because the federally funded grant program had only 215 places for 524 applicants this fall. With the cuts, the number could drop to 115.

Even food is a problem, and the Agriculture Department provides cheese, frozen ground beef, rice and other basics through its Food Distribution Program on Indian reservations. William Apple, a temporary $400-a-month construction worker who must support nine relatives, says, "That's our main staple food. It's not something we take for granted. Without a job, that's something you depend on from month to month to supply you." The House appropriations bill proposes reducing the program's funding, with an eye toward eliminating it. Says Bernice White Hawk, a 63-year-old grandmother: "We are going to starve if they cut the [food program]. But those politicians, especially the Republicans, are stingy, rich people. They don't care about anyone except themselves."


"...somebody hands me the New York Times from September 20, 1992. It has an article on the front page, headlined SAD DISTINCTION FOR THE SIOUX: HOMELAND IS NO. 1 IN POVERTY. The article is subtitled Life at the bottom - America's poorest county. It describes our reservations as ' mean and despairing places .' It says that Pine Ridge, our neighboring res, with which we have a common border, is the poorest of all the 3,141 counties in the USA. Well, if Pine Ridge is the poorest, then Rosebud must be a close second. The average income on our res is about $3,100 with 65 percent of our people living below the poverty line. We are the leftover, surplus folks.

Most people live on GA. You go out and apply for a job so that you have that in your record. But there's no jobs, so it's automatic that you qualify and get into the welfare system. You go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to the social services. You tell them your situation-your income, what bills you pay, how many people are in your family. Even if you are single person you'll qualify. You get very little-maybe a weeks worth of living expenses, after paying the bills. A lot of people do crafts, beadwork, or quillwork, which they sell privately or to the trading post. Sometimes you can hock something there, but there are so many people doing stuff that there aren't enough places to sell them. You end up underselling yourself. If your on GA you can get food stamps too. You can either get commodities or food stamps, but not both. Commodities are still bad. It's the same old stuff, government-issued staples-powdered milk, powdered eggs, dried meat, dried potatoes, and pork-which Sioux just don't care for. You get some good stuff, rice, flour, and cereal, but there's too much cheese and butter. Many middle-aged or even young people are obese. But it's not the healthy, muscular kind of obesity that comes from good, nourishing food. It's just flab. It's not healthy. Also you don't get everything I listed here. You must make choices. If they give you one thing, there's another you can't have.

...Life is hard, and many people are just unable to get through the month without selling, or swapping food for something they must have. I wish we had food co-ops like they have in cities, but that's just a dream. There is no money to translate dreams into reality." Ohitika Woman

...The whites saw what was happening...In destroying the buffalo herds, the hide hunters were wiping out the Indian's food supply. To avoid starvation, the bands would have to go onto the reservations and accept government-issued rations. The government and the army gave encouragement to the hide hunters. "They have done...more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular ,' General Sheridan told a joint session of the Texas legislature. 'They are destroying the Indian's commissary...For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.' 500 Nations, An Illustrated History of the North American Indians, Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. paperback, 1994

Native Americans and their allies were hurt but not utterly shocked when the House hacked the Administration's proposed $1.91 billion for the BIA down to $1.68 billion. Most if not all of the House cuts affected the bureau's central and regional offices, a bureaucracy so inefficient that even friends like McCain estimate that only 10 cents on every dollar it administers actually reaches the tribes. Gorton's Senate subcommittee not only tacked on more than $2 million in additional cuts but, claim the injured parties, cold bloodedly targeted the very programs crafted over two decades to sidestep the BIA bureaucracy and nurture autonomy among the tribes by funneling money directly to them.

In defense of the Native Americans, Senators Pete Domenici and Daniel Inouye proposed amendments to the appropriations bill that would have reinstated many of those funds. But by then, Gorton had managed to frame the issue as a budget battle, with every cent restored to the Indians taken from someone else's hide. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt so objected to this zero sum game that he threatened to ask Bill Clinton to veto the bill even if the Indian funds were reinstated, on the grounds that the money would disappear from other key Interior programs, putting "public health and safety in jeopardy," among other things. Similarly, several Democratic Senators apparently found that their fondness for Interior projects outweighed their party's traditional support for the Indians. Senate minority leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota stood to lose the facility that developes photographs from the LANSAT satellite in his state. His defection made it easier for such key liberal colleagues as Massachusett's Ted Kennedy and California's Barbara Boxer to do likewise.

When first asked by a reporter for Gorton's rational for the cuts, a spokesman said the Senator had based his decision on grounds similar to Babbitt's. But given Gorton's reputation as one of the environmental regulation's stauncher foes, this was a dubious rationale. In fact, the Senator's battle with autonomous-and assertive-local Indian government goes back at least to the 1970s, when as an 11-year attorney general in Washington State, he found himself embroiled in high-profile court cases against area tribes over fishing rights and criminal jurisdiction. 'I do not believe there is a permanent duty, lasting not only a century and a half, but forever, to fund activities that every other American funds through local taxes and local effort,' he says. "self-determination is something the Indians desire and to which they have a right. But ultimately, self-determination carries a certain duty of self-support.' The Senator insists that if health and education programs are included, Indian budget cuts will average just 8 percent. Gorton also maintains that Indian self-support may be well under way through activities such as 'mining, fishing, and gambling.' Reminded that most tribes claimed to be not yet enriched through those avenues, he gives a disbelieving sniff. 'Ah, they are people who have income,' he says.

Standing off Highway 18 on the Pine Ridge reservation is what Slade Gorton would like to believe is a symbol of hope and self-suffciency. It is Prairie Wind, the Oglala Sioux's venture into Indian gambling.. Housed temporarily in two connected double-wide trailers, it consists of several slot machines and two tables for poker and blackjack. The casino's revenues in it's 10 months of existence have run from $13,000 to $92,000 a month, of which 30 percent is earmarked for it's investors. Thus far, after expenses, it has provided $10,000 for children's school clothes in each of the reservation's nine districts. Prairie Wind's prospects are not golden. In this sparsely peopled state, it must compete with a plethora of other gambling ventures. Says Oglala tribal council vice president Mel Lone Hill: 'It is not a benefit to the tribe. It doesn't help us. If we were in an urban area, we could make millions.'

An equally valid symbol of the tribe's future fortunes, at least at this particular historical juncture, can be found 19 miles away at Wounded Knee, where a band of peaceful Sioux were mowed down by Seventh U.S. calvalry in 1890. Here is a man in ragged, dirty jeans and a filthy red t-shirt. His face is puffy and pockmarked, and there is liquor on his breath. His hand outstretched, he claims he is the caretaker of the Sioux cemetery.

First Nations