Senator Claire McCaskill is attacking Indian country economies again and attempting to create even worse poverty than we already suffer. If she succeeds, she will ensure that children aren’t fed and clothed, homes aren’t heated, social issues escalate and our few businesses disappear, along with the small number of jobs they offer, each one supporting entire extended families.
She isn’t using guns or smallpox-infected blankets, as her ancestors did. Her methods are just as effective, though. She is attempting to introduce two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would cripple our ability to secure 8(a) small-business contracts. One of her proposals targets only tribes and no one else.
At this time of year, it’s instructive to remember how we greeted Europeans, like Senator McCaskill’s forebears, when they set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Within a few months, half of them had died from disease and starvation. These Pilgrims were in bad shape, and it was a Native man named Squanto who taught them how to grow corn, make maple syrup and catch fish. He even had to stop them from eating poisonous plants! It must have been a full-time job! Squanto also helped the settlers forge an alliance with the Wampanoag, who ensured the Pilgrims’ survival for the next half century.
Because of our respect for life and our generosity, we Native American Indians care for the needy and share with those who have less than us. From these values, a new nation was born.
After 300-plus years, Native Americans are still giving to this country by serving in the U.S. armed services in greater proportions than any other population group. We also work for the Department of Defense through Native 8(a) contracts that provide DOD support services. It was just this month on November 20, that Lakota code talkers, all of whom have passed away, were recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal.
We willingly work for our land and lay down our lives for it. It is therefore deeply painful to know that Senator McCaskill is using a defense bill to kill our economic development and maim our already struggling communities. Senator McCaskill’s Senate Amendment 2193, targeting only tribes, would end the Indian Incentive Program (IIP), which encourages prime contractors to subcontract with Native businesses. Although this entire program includes a total of only $15 million in contracts, that very small amount could produce over $300 million in subcontracted revenue for Native enterprises.
McCaskill’s Senate Amendment 2194 would prohibit the Department of Defense from counting the 8(a) contracts it awards toward the requirement that it give 5 percent of its work to small businesses. This amendment is intended to discourage the Defense Department from working with 8(a) businesses at all.
Now, please remember that this is not the first time Senator McCaskill has intentionally harmed tribes. In 2010, she inserted Section 811 into the National Defense Authorization Act; this capped the total amount of any given contracts issued under the Native 8(a) program and cost tribes millions in lost revenue. This, in turn, caused jobs and benefit losses all across Indian country at a time when we were already reeling from problems in the larger economy.
Senator McCaskill’s current proposals would wipe out tribes’ ability to use Native 8(a) programs within the Defense Department. So much for us being veterans in such large numbers; so much for some of us making the supreme sacrifice for this country. Now that our men and women in uniform are back home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other postings, businesses in their communities would be pushed out of the DOD, if Senator McCaskill has her way. Makes me wonder how many defense contractors in her backyard in Missouri will benefit from this.
Some tribes’ reservations are close to large population centers and benefit from proximity to those large economies. But most tribes have to find other forms of economic development. This is becoming harder than ever as Native 8(a) programs are cut and/or eliminated. Native tobacco and tribal short-term loans are additional economic tools that have been placed under attack, in their cases via state taxation and laws.
Our nations need to prepare a positive economic and social environment for our future generations. We must deal with Congress on a nation-to-nation basis; among other activities, we must be able to provide contracted services to the government that so many of our people have served. We must protect our sovereignty from state taxation and laws, just as we protect the United States from her enemies.
We must build tribal nation-to-nation economic development. Our tribes should be able to get lumber from our relatives in Washington State, Native tobacco from our relatives in New York and elsewhere and, eventually, fuel from tribal oil refineries—all without interference from the states.
Back to Thanksgiving: So, what happened after we got the Pilgrims back on their feet? By about 55 years after what some consider the original Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims had destroyed the Wampanoag and neighboring tribes. The settlers used germ warfare in the form of smallpox-infected blankets; they sold Indians into slavery; they placed bounties on the skins of all Natives—man, woman or child. McCaskill’s 2013 tactics may be different from those of the 1600s, but they have the same result—destruction of Indian people and their communities.
However, we in the Plains remember that working together in 1876 meant defeating an attack on our way of life. If tribes work together now, we can do it again.
Since Novembers has also been designated National Native American Heritage Month this is a good time to tell Congress that enough is enough. We took part in creating and defending their great nation. We gave our lives, our land, our resources and even the concept that became the U.S. Constitution. We have very little left, and we cannot give that away, too.
Oliver J. Semans is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and executive director of Four Directions.