Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: U.S. Government Underfunds American Indian Programs

The federal government has been underfunding American Indian programs, a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said.

The report, titled "A Quiet Crisis, Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country," was released July 18 and discloses a range of underfunded federal programs.

"For example, the federal government's rate of spending on health care for Native Americans is 50 percent less than for prisoners or Medicaid recipients, and 60 percent less than is spent annually on health care for the average American," the report notes.

"Underfunding violates the basic tenets of the trust relationship between the government and Native peoples and perpetuates a civil rights crisis in Indian Country," the report continues.

American Indian Movement co-founder Clyde Bellecourt said he was not surprised by the report's findings.

"This is nothing new to me," he said. "It's been that way for years."

Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the civil rights commission, said the report enlightened commissioners.

"We felt, based on what the staff told us and what we saw in Indian Country, that we would probably find significant disparities," Berry said. "They were much worse than anybody imagined."

The report focused on federal appropriations for fiscal year 1998-2003 as well as 2004 requests. The agencies reviewed were the Department of the Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Education and Department of Agriculture.

"So far, government officials do not deny the programs are inadequately funded. The data came from the agencies themselves," Berry said.

Commissioner Elsie Meeks of Interior, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, pushed for the report. She was appointed to the commission by former President Clinton in 1999.

Overall, the report found spending for federal programs targeted to Indians, adjusted for inflation, increased by 55 percent in the years of the study while overall federal spending rose 46.7 percent.

However, while the rate of increase was greater for Indian programs than for general spending, the amount of money directed to Indians was so small as to comprise only 0.4 percent of total government spending in 1993. Even with the increase, that had climbed to only 0.5 percent in 2003. That is not a significant increase by federal budget standards, the report said.

Also, the Indian population has grown faster than the overall U.S. population and its needs have outstripped the rate of increase in federal spending.

While per-capita spending on Indians was just over $3,000 in 1995, compared to nearly $4,000 for the general population, by 2000, per-capita federal spending on Indians had nearly leveled off, but it had climbed to $4,500 for the general population.

Berry pointed out that "the disparities are much greater than in other kinds of programs targeted at specific groups.

"My own view is it is the result of politics and the way Indians are viewed," she said. "The relationship with the federal government is determined and perceived by the political clout of a community. The perception is that Native Americans do not have political clout to force politicians to pay attention to their needs."

Bellecourt expressed hope that the report would call attention to the problem.

"I hope something like this wakes up government officials and those in charge of appropriations," he said. "But unless we in leadership put up a fuss, have a Longest Walk or demonstrate, that's the only thing that opens eyes."

And both Bellecourt and Berry pointed to a report finding that while federal spending on all Indians was inadequate, it falls especially short for Indians living outside reservations, in urban areas.

"Just because we're not on the reservation doesn't mean we lose our status as Indians," said Bellecourt, an enrolled member of northern Minnesota's Anishinabe Nation living in Minneapolis. "We do not become a non-Indian when we cross the line, yet we've allowed the BIA to operate that way for years."

- report by the Associated Press/Argus Leader

U.S. Commission On Civil Rights

Report Finds Inadequate Funding, Unmet Needs


Washington, DC - (Washington, DC) The nation's independent agency charged with monitoring federal civil rights enforcement released a new report on federal programs intended to assist Native Americans. The report uncovers vast unmet needs in Indian Country, including health care, education, public safety, housing, and rural and economic development.

In exchange for land, mining, hunting and fishing rights, and other secessions, the government promised to support and protect its indigenous peoples. However, federal funding has neither been sufficient to operate programs associated with those promises nor to support tribal independence and self-sufficiency.

"Throughout history, Native peoples have endured injustice at the hands of the U.S. government. From forced removal from ancestral lands and confiscation of natural resources to segregation and forced acculturation, federal policies toward Native Americans have resulted in large-scale violations of their civil rights," declared Commission Chairperson Mary Frances Berry.

"A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country" ( evaluates the budgets and expenditures of the six major federal agencies responsible for Native American programs. The Commission concludes that significant disparities exist between federal funding of programs serving Native Americans and those serving other Americans. The report finds that when inflation is factored in, funding for many individual programs has decreased. Small funding increases in other programs are vastly inadequate to meet the needs of Native American communities.

According to the report, Native Americans rank at or near the bottom of virtually every social, health, and economic indicator. They experience poverty and unemployment rates that are more than twice the national average, have a lower life expectancy than any other group, and are twice as likely as other Americans to experience hunger.

"Federal programs fail to provide the services and funding equal to that which other groups receive, denying equal opportunity to Native Americans," said Berry. "The government must act immediately to reverse this shameful and unjust treatment."

For more information and a copy of the report, contact Danielle Lewis at 202/833-9771.

Tuesday, August 5, 2003