American Indians stand to gain almost $3 billion as part of the economic stimulus moving through Congress, money that could help some of the nation's poorest communities rebuild roads, improve health care and boost employment that has lagged behind the rest of the country for decades.
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday included $2.8 billion for Indian tribes in its portion of the nearly $900 billion economic stimulus bill, and a House version to be voted on Wednesday includes a similar amount. That includes hundreds of millions of dollars for schools, health clinics, roads, law enforcement and water projects.
Dante Desiderio, an economic development policy specialist at the National Congress of American Indians, which has lobbied for the money for the past year, calls the bill a "once in a lifetime opportunity" for tribes.
"It really has the potential to lift our communities out of poverty," Desiderio said.
Indian Country has a long way to go in terms of reviving tribal economies. According to the National Congress of American Indians, real per-capita income of Indians living on reservations is still less than half the national average, unemployment is twice that of the rest of the country, and eight of the 10 poorest counties in the United States are on reservations.
That group originally asked for $6.1 billion in the stimulus, an amount that they said would generate more than 50,000 jobs.
"It's not going to allow them to catch up, but its a significant boost," said North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who inserted the money into the stimulus. "This is a group of Americans who have been left behind in many of the basic needs of life."
Julie Kitka, president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, asked Congress for stimulus dollars at a Senate Indian Affairs hearing earlier this month. She describes chronically underfunded Indian and Native Alaskan communities as "emerging economies" similar to developing countries around the world that can be hardest hit by an economic downturn. She says this is a chance for tribes to boost their economies for years to come
"It's an opportunity to do things right," she said.