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An Open Letter to Barack Obama

Reznet, Commentary , Kevin Abourezk Posted: Feb 28, 2009

Dear President Obama,

I want to personally thank you for the $3 billion in direct funding and $500 million more in bonding authority you've given to Indian Country in your $787 billion economic stimulus package.

I can't think of a group of people who have a greater need for economic stimulus than Native people, who suffer from a 25 percent rate of poverty and a median household income 30 percent less than that of all Americans.

Still, I hold a number of reservations (no pun intended) about some of the stipulations on these Indian stimulus funds as they affect my tribe.

But before I lay out those concerns, I need to mention a few statistics about my tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota:

My tribe suffers a 34 percent unemployment rate. That's compared to 7.2 percent for the entire United States.

Of those who are employed, 80 percent live in poverty on my reservation (compared to an overall 12 percent poverty rate for the United States).

The per capita personal income for Todd County, which lies entirely within the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, ranked 66th out of 66 counties in South Dakota in 1995.

Given these economic challenges, my tribe ranks as one of the neediest in the country, and also one of those least likely to win stimulus funds given the requirements of the stimulus money.

Let me explain.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, stimulus money meant for tribes will be directed first to federal agencies and other institutions that serve tribal governments. Those agencies ultimately will have discretion over how stimulus funds are distributed to tribes.

Those funds will be distributed to tribes mostly through existing federal grant programs, which are likely to have application deadlines much shorter than usual.

Given our deplorable unemployment and poverty rates, I think it's fair to say my tribe hasn't been the most successful at winning federal grants over the years, compared to other wealthy tribes, and state and local governments.

Blame it on a lack of funds to pay for professional grant writers, a problem that stems from my tribe's inability to build capital the way most wealthy tribes do through economic development and gaming.

Still, we are expected to compete for stimulus funds against those same governmental entities that have continually beat us out for federal money for decades? We're supposed to compete against the Seminole and the Oneida? Against the city of Denver and the state of Indiana?


I have to say, this whole process seems to clearly favor those tribes, states and towns that have historically won federal grants and have ongoing relationships with the same federal agencies that will ultimately decide who gets stimulus money.

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seemed this stimulus package was meant to help those governments most in need. To assuage the troubles of those communities that suffer rampant unemployment and poverty. To create opportunity and hope where none now exists.

Sadly, without the support and money needed to level the playing field, the Rosebud Sioux seem destined for failure in their efforts to improve their quality of life.

I offer a solution to this conundrum, because I believe, perhaps naively, in your administration's good intentions: Offer technical and financial support in applying for stimulus money to those tribes most in need and require federal agencies to prioritize the needs of those same tribes.

Otherwise, this Indian stimulus money will become little more than a windfall for wealthy casino tribes that are able to employ armies of grant writers. And all of your good intentions to lift up the downtrodden will remain just that: intentions.

Respectfully yours,

Kevin Abourezk

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