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History > 2009 > USA > Native Americans / Indian Americans (I)




Gang Violence Grows

on an Indian Reservation


December 14, 2009
The New York Times


PINE RIDGE, S.D. — Richard Wilson has been a pallbearer for at least five of his “homeboys” in the North Side Tre Tre Gangster Crips, a Sioux imitation of a notorious Denver gang.

One 15-year-old member was mauled by rivals. A 17-year-old shot himself; another, on a cocaine binge and firing wildly, was shot by the police. One died in a drunken car wreck, and another, a founder of the gang named Gaylord, was stabbed to death at 27.

“We all got drunk after Gaylord’s burial, and I started rapping,” said Mr. Wilson, who, at 24, is practically a gang elder. “But I teared up and couldn’t finish.”

Mr. Wilson is one of 5,000 young men from the Oglala Sioux tribe involved with at least 39 gangs on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The gangs are being blamed for an increase in vandalism, theft, violence and fear that is altering the texture of life here and in other parts of American Indian territory.

This stunning land of crumpled prairie, horse pastures turned tawny in the autumn and sunflower farms is marred by an astonishing number of roadside crosses and gang tags sprayed on houses, stores and abandoned buildings, giving rural Indian communities an inner-city look.

Groups like Wild Boyz, TBZ, Nomads and Indian Mafia draw children from broken, alcohol-ravaged homes, like Mr. Wilson’s, offering brotherhood, an identity drawn from urban gangsta rap and self-protection.

Some groups have more than a hundred members, others just a couple of dozen. Compared with their urban models, they are more likely to fight rivals, usually over some minor slight, with fists or clubs than with semiautomatic pistols.

Mr. Wilson, an unemployed school dropout who lives with assorted siblings and partners in his mother’s ramshackle house, without running water, displayed a scar on his nose and one over his eye. “It’s just like living in a ghetto,” he said. “Someone’s getting beat up every other night.”

The Justice Department distinguishes the home-grown gangs on reservations from the organized drug gangs of urban areas, calling them part of an overall juvenile crime problem in Indian country that is abetted by eroding law enforcement, a paucity of juvenile programs and a suicide rate for Indian youth that is more than three times the national average.

If they lack the reach of the larger gangs after which they style themselves, the Indian gangs have emerged as one more destructive force in some of the country’s poorest and most neglected places.

While many crimes go unreported, the police on the Pine Ridge reservation have documented thousands of gang-related thefts, assaults — including sexual assaults — and rising property crime over the last three years, along with four murders. Residents are increasingly fearful that their homes will be burglarized or vandalized. Car windows are routinely smashed out.

“Tenants are calling in and saying ‘I’m scared,’ ” Paul Iron Cloud, executive officer of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Housing Authority, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in July at a special hearing on the increase of gang activity.

“It seems that every day we’re getting more violence,” Mr. Iron Cloud said.

Perhaps unique to reservations, rivals sometimes pelt one other with cans of food from the federal commodity program, a practice called “commod-squadding.”

As federal grants to Pine Ridge have declined over the last decade, the tribal police force has shrunk by more than half, with only 12 to 20 officers per shift patrolling an area the size of Rhode Island, said John Mousseau, chairman of the tribe’s judiciary committee.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has proposed large increases in money for the police, courts and juvenile programs, and for fighting rampant domestic and sexual violence on reservations.

Christopher M. Grant, who used to head a police antigang unit in Rapid City, S.D., and is now a consultant on gangs to several tribes and federal agencies, has noted the “marked increase in gang activity, particularly on reservations in the Midwest, the Northwest and the Southwest” over the last five to seven years.

The Navajo Nation in Arizona, for example, has identified 225 gang units, up from 75 in 1997.

One group that reaches across reservations in Minnesota, called the Native Mob, is more like the street gangs seen in cities, with hierarchical leadership and involvement in drug and weapons trafficking, Mr. Grant said.

Many of the gangs in Pine Ridge, like the Tre Tre Crips, were started by tribal members who encountered them in prison or while living off the reservation; others have taken their names and colors from movies and records.

Even as they seek to bolster policing, Pine Ridge leaders see their best long-term hope for fighting gangs in cultural revival.

“We’re trying to give an identity back to our youth,” said Melvyn Young Bear, the tribe’s appointed cultural liaison. “They’re into the subculture of African-Americans and Latinos. But they are Lakota, and they have a lot to be proud of.”

Mr. Young Bear, 42, is charged with promoting Lakota rituals, including drumming, chanting and sun dances. He noted that some Head Start programs were now conducted entirely in Lakota.

Michael Little Boy Jr., 30, of the village of Evergreen, said he had initially been tempted by gang life, but with rituals and purifying sweat lodges, “I was able to turn myself around.” He is emerging as a tribal spiritual leader, working with youth groups to promote native traditions.

Mr. Grant said a survey of young men in South Dakota reservations found that the approach might be helping.

Mr. Wilson, the 24-year-old gang member, said he regretted not learning the Sioux language when he was young and now wondered about his own future.

“I still get drunk and hang with my homeboys, but not like I used to,” he said.

His car, its windows shattered, sits outside his house, so he cannot get to the G.E.D. class he says he would like to attend. His goal is to run a recording studio where his younger half-brother, Richard Lame, 18, could make rap songs. Mr. Lame is finishing high school and says he wants to go to college.

But he admits that he still joined 30 or so homeboys in town to party any chance he got — “for the rush, the thrill.” As he spoke, he was dressed in the dark colors of his set, the Black Wall Street Boyz; his tiny bedroom was decorated with movie posters of Al Pacino as the megalomaniacal drug dealer Tony Montana in “Scarface,” and he wore a black bandanna.

He pulled out a thick sheaf of his rap lyrics and gave an impromptu performance.

Ever since birth

I been waitin’ for death ...

    Gang Violence Grows on an Indian Reservation, NYT, 14.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/us/14gangs.html






U.S. Will Settle Indian Lawsuit

for $3.4 Billion


December 9, 2009
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The federal government announced on Tuesday that it intends to pay $3.4 billion to settle claims that it has mismanaged the revenue in American Indian trust funds, potentially ending one of the largest and most complicated class-action lawsuits ever brought against the United States.

The tentative agreement, reached late Monday, would resolve a 13-year-old lawsuit over hundreds of thousands of land trust accounts that date to the 19th century. Specialists in federal tribal law described the lawsuit as one of the most important in the history of legal disputes involving the government’s treatment of American Indians.

President Obama hailed the agreement as an “important step towards a sincere reconciliation” between the federal government and American Indians, many of whom, he said, considered the protracted lawsuit a “stain” on the nation.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Obama said, “I pledged my commitment to resolving this issue, and I am proud that my administration has taken this step today.”

For the agreement to become final, Congress must enact legislation and the federal courts must then sign off on it. Administration officials said they hoped those two steps would be completed in the next few months.

The dispute arises from a system dating to 1887, when Congress divided many tribal lands into parcels — most from 40 to 160 acres — and assigned them to individual Indians while selling off remaining lands.

The Interior Department now manages about 56 million acres of Indian trust land scattered across the country, with the heaviest concentration in Western states. The government handles leases on the land for mining, livestock grazing, timber harvesting and drilling for oil and gas. It then distributes the revenue raised by those leases to the American Indians. In the 2009 fiscal year, it collected about $298 million for more than 384,000 individual Indian accounts.

The lawsuit accuses the federal government of mismanaging that money. As a result, the value of the trusts has been unclear, and the Indians contend that they are owed far more than what they have been paid.

Under the settlement, the government would pay $1.4 billion to compensate the Indians for their claims of historical accounting irregularities and any accusation that federal officials mismanaged the administration of the land itself over the years.

Each member of the class would receive a check for $1,000, and the rest of the money would be distributed according to the land owned. In addition, legal fees, to be determined by a judge, would be paid from that fund.

Philip Frickey, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in federal Indian law, said that of all the Indian land claims and other lawsuits over the past generation, the trust case had been a “blockbuster” because it is national in scope, involves a large amount of money, and has been long-running.

The lawsuit spanned three presidencies and engendered seven trials covering 192 trial days, generated 22 published judicial opinions, and went before a federal appeals court 10 times.

Over its course, the federal judge originally assigned to the case, Royce C. Lamberth, put contempt orders on two secretaries of the interior over their handling of the lawsuit. In 2006, after the Bush administration complained of bias, a federal appeals court removed Judge Lamberth from the case.

Judge James Robertson has handled it since, and he pushed both parties to negotiate — including brokering a last-minute deal over an undisclosed problem that nearly derailed the settlement late Monday, said David J. Hayes, the Interior Department deputy secretary.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Tuesday characterized the case as “intense, and sometimes difficult.”

“The United States could have continued to litigate this case, at great expense to the taxpayers,” Mr. Holder said. “It could have let all of these claims linger, and could even have let the problem of fractionated land continue to grow with each generation. But with this settlement, we are erasing these past liabilities and getting on track to eliminate them going forward.”

The settlement also seeks to resolve an ever-growing headache of the trust system that contributed to the government’s problems — especially in the pre-computer era — in keeping track of the allotments: the original owners, most of whom died without leaving wills, have many heirs, which has “fractionalized” the ownership interests.

For example, one 40-acre parcel today has 439 owners, most of whom receive less than $1 a year in income from it, Mr. Haynes said. The parcel is valued at about $20,000, but it costs the government more than $40,000 a year to administer those trusts.

In an effort to resolve such problems — and prevent them from worsening in subsequent generations — the settlement would establish a $2 billion fund to buy fractional interests in land from anyone willing to sell. The program would seek to consolidate ownership in parcels of land for the tribes, while reducing the Interior Department’s work in keeping track of the trusts.

“This is an historic, positive development for Indian country,” said Ken Salazar, the Interior Department secretary, “and a major step on the road to reconciliation following years of acrimonious litigation between trust beneficiaries and the United States.”

Over the years, the plaintiffs have contended that they were owed tens of billions of dollars, while the government has at times taken the position that it owed them little or nothing.

Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff who filed the class-action lawsuit in 1996, said she believed that the Indians were owed more, but that it was better to reach an agreement that could help impoverished trust holders than to spend more years in court. She said she had originally expected the litigation to last only two or three years.

“We are compelled to settle by the sobering realization that our class grows smaller each day as our elders die and are forever prevented from receiving just compensation,“ Ms. Cobell said.

Robert Clinton, an Arizona State University law professor who specializes in federal Indian law, said the settlement alone would not resolve the trust problem because many of the heirs who own tiny interests in parcels may not be willing to sell them.

Still, the settlement will provide an incentive for such owners to sell: the Interior Department will set aside up to 5 percent of the value of the land interests for a scholarship fund to help Indians attend college or vocational school.

    U.S. Will Settle Indian Lawsuit for $3.4 Billion, NYT, 9.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/09/us/09tribes.html






New Hopes on Health Care

for American Indians


December 2, 2009
The New York Times


The meeting last month was a watershed: the leaders of 564 American Indian tribes were invited to Washington to talk with cabinet members and President Obama, who called it “the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders in our history.”

Topping the list of their needs was better health care.

“Native Americans die of illnesses like tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza at far higher rates,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re going to have to do more to address disparities in health care delivery.”

The health care overhaul now being debated in Congress appears poised to bring the most significant improvements to the Indian health system in decades. After months of negotiations, provisions under consideration could, over time, direct streams of money to the Indian health care system and give Indians more treatment options.

Some proposals, like exempting Indians from penalties for not obtaining insurance, may meet resistance from lawmakers opposed to expanding benefits for Indians, many of whom receive free medical care.

But advocates say the changes recognize Indians’ unique status and could ease what Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, calls “full-scale health care rationing going on on Indian reservations.”

“We’ve got the ‘first Americans’ living in third world conditions,” Mr. Dorgan said.

Mr. Obama has emphasized Indian issues more than most presidents. He campaigned on reservations, created a senior policy adviser for Native American affairs and appointed Kimberly Teehee, a Cherokee, to the post, and gave Indians other high-ranking positions.

He has proposed a budget increase of 13 percent for the federal Indian Health Service, which provides free care to 1.9 million Indians who belong to federally recognized tribes, most of whom live on tribally owned land. The service, which had a budget this year of $3.3 billion, has also received $500 million in stimulus money for construction, repairs and equipment.

“This new administration has been much more positive,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe in Washington State and treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, adding that the Congressional proposals provide “a very impressive opportunity to close the gap in Indian health care.”

On Thursday, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is scheduled to discuss other Indian health issues that could end up in the overhaul bill.

Indians could benefit from broader overhaul programs for low-income and uninsured citizens, but they do not want to relinquish the health care they claim as a historical right.

“Indian people have given up a lot,” said Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, director of the Indian Health Service. “They really feel like they have, in a sense, prepaid for this health care with loss of land, natural resources, loss of culture.”


‘List Goes On and On’

In the vast, varied territory called Indian Country, health care is stung with struggle.

Too few doctors. Too little equipment. Hospitals and clinics miles of hardscrabble road away.

In cities, where over half of the country’s roughly 3 million Indians now live (and nearly 5 million including part-Indians), only 34 programs get Indian Health Service funding, providing mostly basic care and arranging more advanced care and coverage elsewhere.

While some Indians have private insurance, often through employers or tribal businesses like casinos, a third are uninsured and a quarter live in poverty. By all accounts, the Indian Health Service is substantially underfunded.

Money shortages, bureaucracy and distance can delay treatment of even serious conditions for months, even years.

Many Indians face multiple roadblocks.

Joanna Quotskuyva’s breast cancer did not require a mastectomy, but she chose to have surgery because radiation would mean months of driving five hours round-trip from her home on the Hopi reservation in Kykotsmovi, Ariz.

Many make similar choices, because “unfortunately, we don’t have the capability,” said Dr. Joachim Chino, chief of surgery at the nearest hospital, the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation. Treating large swaths of the Hopi and Navajo reservations — the Navajo alone is the size of West Virginia — is inherently difficult.

Despite its dedicated medical staff, the hospital struggles “to bring, right here, appropriate state-of-the-art, specialty, critical-care medicine,” said Joseph Engelken, the hospital’s chief executive.

While the Indian health system has improved nationally and Indians are living longer, Dr. Roubideaux acknowledged problems, not all from underfunding, saying, “The list goes on and on in terms of areas that need improvement.”

Sometimes urgent “life or limb” cases get attention, while others, some serious, must wait.

Dr. David Yost, clinical director at the White Mountain Apache reservation in Arizona, cited “piles of care we have to put on the back burner,” including 150 cases this summer, some “waiting a year and a half.” This budget year, he said, 40 patients are still waiting, and about “10 people a month” are added to the list.

Ronnye Manuelito, 56, a Navajo in Naschitti, N.M., said he “almost felt like giving up” after waiting for brain surgery to quell blackouts, seizures and headaches experienced over three years from a shifting metal plate in his head from a childhood carousel injury.

One time he “left the stove on in the kitchen and passed out,” and another he had a seizure in a car, said his sister, Brenda. His Indian Health Service doctor “was trying to get him a referral to a specialist in Albuquerque, but they weren’t approving it because it wasn’t life-or-limb,” she said.

Ultimately, two surgical procedures helped him.

Dr. Roubideaux, speaking generally, said, “There are some places where funding is so short and there are so few health care providers, unfortunately people may have to wait quite a long time.”

A former reservation doctor herself, Dr. Roubideaux said she would see “someone who maybe had chronic knee pain and a little bit of surgery would help, yet the person was still walking,” making it non-life-threatening. “It’s really heartbreaking,” she said.

In cities, scarce Indian facilities and patchwork insurance can mean “a woman with a lump in her breast — we can’t guarantee we can get her into treatment in a reasonable period,” said Ralph Forquera, the executive director of the nonprofit Seattle Indian Health Board. “A cardiac problem? We can’t guarantee that person can get to see a specialist.”

Sometimes, Mr. Forquera said, when that woman is treated, “the lump has metastasized.” He added, “We’ve had people actually die on waiting lists.”

Jackie BirdChief, 46, a single mother with thyroid cancer, did not have to wait. She just had to move 200 miles from Phoenix to the Apache reservation she left in 1983, leaving her city, her job and, for months, her daughter, then 14. She moved because cost containment rules link coverage for care to establishing residency on reservations.

Ms. BirdChief, a secretary, was lucky because the Indian Health Service, her employer, “manipulated the system to make it work out for her,” Dr. Yost said. It found her jobs on the reservation, he said, “whereas someone working in a grocery store would have had to quit their job — or decide if they wanted to have the procedure.”

Still, Dr. Yost said, Ms. BirdChief “was a victim of our system, and ironically, she worked for the Indian health system.”

Living on a reservation, however, does not ensure accessible care.

Ruby Biakeddy’s six-sided hogan, a traditional Navajo home, without running water or a phone, is an hour’s drive on a dirt road from drinking water, and even farther from diabetes and blood pressure medication. Since her truck got swept away in a rain-swollen ditch five years ago, Ms. Biakeddy, 67, who tends sheep, must borrow her children’s vehicles.

“I recently ran out of the medicine I inject for a week,” she said in Navajo through a translator.

Serious cases, where getting care within the “golden hour” after problems start is critical, can also suffer. “For many of our patients,” said Dr. Anne Newland, acting clinical director of a clinic in Kayenta, Ariz., “that hour is gone by the time they get to us.”

Ciara Antone, 4, died on the Navajo reservation outside Tuba City from an apparent bowel obstruction. Her mother, Genita Yazzie, called 911, but said that with the distance and road conditions, the ambulance was two hours away.

“I kept telling the dispatcher, ‘My daughter’s coding, she’s not breathing,’ ” Ms. Yazzie said. Desperate, she drove to the closer Hopi reservation to get an ambulance, but by then, “they couldn’t bring her back.”

Whether a closer ambulance could have saved her daughter is unclear (the family has sued the non-Indian hospital that treated her). Henry Wallace, director of Navajo Emergency Medical Services, which Ms. Yazzie called first for an ambulance, declined to discuss the case, but said, “the geographic area is so large that the time factor is probably the biggest problem we have.”

“We really don’t have a golden hour,” he said. “Ours could be the golden three hours.”

Staffing shortages exacerbate things. Recently, Kayenta began closing its emergency room overnight, making Tuba City, at 90 minutes away, the closest hospital. At Indian hospitals and clinics nationally, a fifth of physician positions and a quarter of the nursing slots are unfilled.

Patients contribute to the frustrations. Nearly a third do not show up for scheduled surgery at Tuba City, often citing distance or cost.

Richard White, 61, acknowledged taking his medicine sporadically and drinking, aggravating his diabetes. He went blind, lost a toe and, during a Navajo medicine-man ceremony that he hoped would restore his vision, burned his other foot, which was then amputated.

“Stare at these incredible statistics, you become overwhelmed,” Dr. Yost said. “It’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant.”


Keeping a Promise

Congress’s goal, in using penalty and co-payment exemptions, is to encourage Indians to enroll in proposed programs like subsidized private insurance or expanded Medicaid, while respecting their sovereignty and the conviction that they are owed health care.

That conviction and bureaucratic hurdles have kept many eligible Indians from enrolling in Medicaid. But getting insurance allows Indians to receive care from more providers and allows the Indian system to get reimbursed from Medicaid or other insurers.

That would generate “an influx of capital,” said Jim Roberts, policy analyst for Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, that “you can use to improve Indian health care.”

Some disagree. Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said exemptions could discourage insurance enrollment, raise premiums for insured people and further stress the Indian health care system, which he called “poorly managed” and in need of billions of dollars to “keep the promise to Native Americans.”

Even if more Indians become insured, it will not end the problems, especially if providers and insurers, daunted by the alarming health problems, continue avoiding Indian Country.

Proposed legislation would not give Indians everything they want, but the overhaul does include grants for preventive care and research. And the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which stands a good chance of being reauthorized by Congress for the first time since 2001, would enhance programs, physician recruitment and hospital construction. Although it approves no funding, advocates hope it will prompt additional money.

Representative Frank Pallone Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said that with the current climate in Congress, and “particularly the president, it’s definitely going to be easier to get Indian provisions in the health care bills.”

Easier, but no sure thing.

With expansions in public coverage or subsidies to buy private coverage, some lawmakers may question whether Indian Country should “still be getting direct payments to run I.H.S. clinics,” said Stephen Zuckerman, a health economist at the Urban Institute, a research group.

“Some people are saying, ‘We can’t make all these adjustments for you guys,’ ” Mr. Allen said, adding that some Indians reply: “Make us pay for health care, then the deal is off. Give us the land back, and we’re good.”

    New Hopes on Health Care for American Indians, NYT, 2.12.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/health/02indian.html






Uranium Contamination

Haunts Navajo Country


July 27, 2009
The New York Times


TEEC NOS POS, Ariz. — It was one year ago that the environmental scientist showed up at Fred Slowman’s door, deep in the heart of Navajo country, and warned that it was unsafe for him to stay there.

The Slowman home, the same one-level cinderblock structure his family had lived in for nearly a half-century, was contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of uranium from the days of the cold war, when hundreds of uranium mines dotted the vast tribal land known as the Navajo Nation. The scientist advised Mr. Slowman, his wife and their two sons to move out until their home could be rebuilt.

“I was angry,” Mr. Slowman said. “I guess it was here all this time, and we never knew.”

The legacy wrought from decades of uranium mining is long and painful here on the expansive reservation. Over the years, Navajo miners extracted some four million tons of uranium ore from the ground, much of it used by the United States government to make weapons.

Many miners died from radiation-related illnesses; some, unaware of harmful health effects, hauled contaminated rocks and tailings from local mines and mills to build homes for their families.

Now, those homes are being demolished and rebuilt under a new government program that seeks to identify what are very likely dozens of uranium-contaminated structures still standing on Navajo land and to temporarily relocate people living in them until the homes can be torn down and rebuilt.

Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, and other tribal officials have been grappling for years with the environmental fallout from uranium mining.

“There were a lot of things people weren’t told about the plight of Navajos and uranium mining,” Mr. Etsitty said. “These legacy issues are impacting generations. At some point people are saying, ‘It’s got to end.’ ”

After a Congressional hearing in 2007, a cross-section of federal agencies committed to addressing the environmental and health impacts of uranium mining on the reservation. As part of that commitment, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation began working together to assess uranium levels in 500 structures through a five-year plan set to end in 2012.

Using old lists of potentially contaminated structures, federal and Navajo scientists have fanned out to rural reaches of the 27,000 square mile reservation — which includes swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — to measure levels of radium, a decay product of uranium that can cause lung cancer. Of 113 structures assessed so far, 27 contained radiation levels that were above normal.

“In these situations, you have contamination in somebody’s yard or in their house,” said Harry Allen, the E.P.A.’s section chief for emergency response in San Francisco who is helping lead the government’s efforts. “To us, that is somewhat urgent.”

Many structures that showed high levels of radiation were vacant; some families had already moved out after hearing stories of contamination in their homes. But eight homes still had people living in them, and the E.P.A. and Navajo officials have worked to convince residents that it would be unsafe to stay.

“People had been told they were living in contaminated structures, but nobody ever did anything about it,” said Will Duncan, an environmental scientist who has been the E.P.A.’s main representative on the reservation. “They would tell us, ‘We don’t believe you are going to follow through.’ ”

But with a budget of nearly $8 million, the E.P.A. has demolished all 27 contaminated structures and has begun building ones to replace those that had been occupied. Typically, the agency pays a Navajo contracting company to construct a log cabin or a traditional hogan in the structure’s stead, depending on the wishes of the occupants. Mr. Allen said the cost, including temporarily relocating residents, ran approximately $260,000 per dwelling and took about eight months.

The agency also offers $50,000 to those who choose not to have an old home rebuilt.

Lillie Lane, a public information officer with the Navajo Nation E.P.A. who has acted as a liaison between the federal government and tribal members, said the program held practical and symbolic importance given the history of uranium mining here.

Ms. Lane described the difficulty of watching families, particularly elders, leaving homes they had lived in for years. She told of coming upon two old miners who died before their contaminated homes could be rebuilt. “In Navajo, a home is considered sacred,” she said. “But if the foundation or the rocks are not safe, we have to do this work.”

Some families, Ms. Lane said, complained that their children were suffering from health problems and had wondered if radiation were to blame.

The E.P.A. has started sifting through records and interviewing family members to figure out whether mining companies that once operated on the reservation are liable for any damages, Mr. Allen said.

On a recent summer day, Fred and Clara Slowman proudly surveyed their new home, a one-level log cabin that sits in the quiet shadows of Black Rock Point, miles away from the bustle of Farmington, N.M., where the family has been living in a hotel.

Mr. Slowman said he suspected that waste materials from a nearby abandoned mine seeped into his house. The family plans on having a traditional Navajo medicine man bless their dwelling before they move in.

“In our traditional way, a house is like your mom,” he said. “It’s where you eat, sleep, where you’re taken care of. And when you come back from the city, you come back to your mom. It makes you feel real good.”

    Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country, NYT, 27.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/27/us/27navajo.html






Op-Ed Contributor

Evil Spirits


July 16, 2009
The New York Times


Sioux Falls, S.D.

SINCE taking office, President Obama has overturned several of George W. Bush’s executive orders. I would like to recommend he also overturn one of Theodore Roosevelt’s.

Fourteen years after the Great Sioux Reservation was established in western South Dakota in 1868, President Chester Arthur issued an executive order creating a 50-square-mile buffer zone on its southern edge, in Nebraska. This was meant to prevent renegade whites from selling guns, knives and alcohol to Indians living on the reservation.

The buffer zone was ratified as law when Congress divided the Great Sioux Reservation into smaller units in 1889. But when Roosevelt became president, the liquor industry convinced him that the buffer zone should be abolished, which he did through an executive order in 1904. This move was, however, illegitimate from the start, because an act of Congress cannot legally be reversed by an executive order.

Today, the tiny Nebraska hamlet of Whiteclay has four liquor stores, ostensibly to serve its population of 24, but really more for the bootleggers and alcoholics living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just across the border. The result has been murders, spouse beatings, child abuse, thefts and other undesirable consequences of the free flow of alcohol into the reservation.

In 2000, I asked the Clinton administration to overturn Roosevelt’s illegal order, but was unable to get anyone’s attention. In 2001, I asked Vice President Dick Cheney to do the same, but he referred the matter to the White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who decided that bringing back the buffer zone would, as he wrote me in a letter, take land away from white landowners. In fact, overturning the Roosevelt order would not transfer any land titles, but would merely give jurisdiction over the buffer zone to the Oglala Sioux tribe, automatically making alcohol sales illegal.

President Obama could right a century of wrongs by re-establishing the buffer zone. It would alleviate the overwhelming social ills that result from easy access to alcohol, and help end the violence tribal members too often visit on each other and on their families.


James Abourezk, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, was the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs from 1977 to 1979.

    Evil Spirits, NYT, 16.7.2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/16/opinion/16abourezk.html






Native American Family

To See Adopted Son Sworn In


Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Washington Post
Staff Writer
By Michael Laris

Back home in Lodge Grass, Mont., they keep talking about Hartford Black Eagle's luck.

"People around here, even the white people, say, 'You're the luckiest the person in the world. You adopted the president of the United States!' " he said.

"Thank you," is his usual response.

But Black Eagle doesn't see his role in today's inauguration in terms of good fortune. He sees something sacred. He and Mary, his wife of 57 years, were set to be whisked to the Capitol by inauguration organizers early today for the swearing-in, where they will be seated near the center of American power.

The couple adopted Barack Obama in a traditional Native American ceremony in May, when the candidate made a campaign stop at the vast Crow reservation.

The adoption marked an unusually intimate intertwining of politics, history and family -- but one that perhaps seems less jarring in the case of a president who reached today's swearing-in, at least in part, on the power of his personal story and its broader appeal.

Obama's outreach to Native Americans was part of a political strategy during critical primary battles in Western states. Native American leaders, too, want more power to control their lands and lives, seeking policy influence on such issues as coal mining, the environment, and the economic stimulus package.

But an adoption is no slapdash honorary degree or campaign prop. It's a revered compact that has linked the first family with five generations of First Americans. Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, beamed as they met their adoptive grandparents over the summer.

Four of those generations of Black Eagles came to Washington to witness their new relative's elevation. Hartford and Mary will have prime viewing seats for the ceremony. She will wear a traditional elk tooth coat, made of deep-pink wool. (The teeth and sinews have gone plastic.) Hartford will don a buckskin vest he's saving for the occasion, with six elegant rows of blue and red beads.

Yesterday, they took a moment to see the sights.

"That's where your son lives," Mary, 74, told her husband yesterday as they glimpsed the White House on their first trip to Washington.

"There are a lot of ghosts in there," Hartford, 75, responded.

Mary first learned that her family was about to grow as she was on a long drive to Arizona. Her son, Cedric, vice chairman of the tribe, was on the cellphone.

"I was already around Wyoming someplace. He called me and said we're going to have to rush right back," Mary said. "He said, 'You're going to have to adopt Barack Obama.' "

They were tentative about taking on the sudden responsibility. "I couldn't comprehend it for a while," Mary said.

On the day Obama arrived at the reservation, she froze.

"When my alarm came on, I didn't want to go through with it. 'I would like to go sleep another eight hours,' I said. 'Not me. I don't want to go,' " she recalled telling Hartford. But, "my husband got after me."

She couldn't eat. Waiting for Obama in the Secret Service's security area, "we were so nervous my mouth dried up," she said. No purses were allowed. "I needed ChapStick so bad."

Then Obama walked in and greeted the dignitaries, before the room was mostly cleared out.

"He started walking toward me. Oh man, I was kind of tongue-tied, and he said, 'Are you my new mother, Mary?' And I said 'Yes.' He just gave me a hug."

At the private adoption, Hartford waved smoke from burning cedar needles over Obama, twice in the front and twice in the back, with a bald eagle fan. Afterward, Obama told reporters he was deeply moved by the ceremony, and he vowed that if he won, he would have his new parents come to the White House.

Hartford is a spiritual healer and had been given the crucial, sacred responsibility of christening Obama with a Crow name.

The act of naming is supposed to reflect the past of the person bestowing the name and the future of the person receiving it, Hartford said.

The request for Obama's name came with an added sensitivity: the possibility of a pre-presidential veto. Obama's people were on the lookout for potential embarrassment, said Aubrey Black Eagle, Mary and Hartford's grandson.

As it happened, "Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuxshish" was the name Hartford chose. It reflected Hartford's own travels as a healer, and translates as: "One Who Helps People Throughout This Land."

Native American Family To See Adopted Son Sworn In, WP, 20.1.2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/19/AR2009011903235.html