Friday, September 08, 2006

Native Americans and (Not Against) the U.S. Military

Looking at the Fiscal Year 2007 Defense Department Appropriations bill – still pending in Congress even though there are no more than 14 legislative working days left before the new fiscal year begins – I came across Section 8033 which deals with something called the “Operation Walking Shield Program.”

Since this is a Pentagon funding bill, what came to mind were images from television and movies of ancient Greek and Roman armies with the shields of the infantry forming an almost impenetrable wall as the well-drilled lines advance on the ill-disciplined barbarians.

But in the legislation pending in Congress, “Walking Shield” was included in the Air Force, not the army, section under the rubric of a “civil-military collaborative program.” The program began in 1994 as part of a more extensive effort that goes back to 1986 “to improve the quality of life and create positive futures” for Native Americans living on reservations. In conjunction with the non-profit charitable Walking Shield American Indian Society, 960 housing units that had become excess to U.S. Air Force needs were physically moved from base housing areas to 13 Native American reservations.

Nearly half of the housing units – 463 or 48 percent – came from two bases: Grand Forks Air Base in North Dakota and Molstrom Air Base in Montana to the 13 Native American reservations. After they are in place, the homes are renovated – to include winterizing – and rented to families at a level that reflects their financial circumstance – which can run from zero to a few hundred dollars per month.

What does the Air Force get from the deal? The transfer authorized by the legislation requires that the transaction not cost the Air Force any dollars or that the Air Force receive any “consideration.” The service had planned to demolish the homes as keeping them up to code when no longer required would soon prove to be a fiscal black hole. By transferring the units, the Air Force avoids demolition and debris removal expenses. Moreover, USAF civil engineers gain experience in constructing foundations for buildings and digging wells, the sort of duties they might have to be able to do should a forward operating base be needed in a humanitarian crisis. And to get the houses safely to their destinations, hundreds of miles of roads on the reservations had to be regraded and repaired – a job done by Navy Seabees.

Making this program work required other U.S. government agencies to pitch in. After all, one cannot simply wave a wand, levitate a structure, and plop in down on a foundation and assume everything is done. Working on the basis of local involvement, tribal authorities arranged for the necessary truck transport to get the units moved. (The tribal housing authorities, as managers of the housing on each reservation, also selected those who would occupy the new units.) Applying its authority under the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development re-imburses tribal housing authorities the cost for moving and re-installing the housing units on the reservations. Hook-ups for water and electricity are prepared by the Bureau of Reclamation. The always-necessary but often overlooked “administrative costs” are covered through a combination of grants from foundations and – in at least one instance – by a personal contribution of the unpaid founder of the Walking Shield Society, Phil Stevens, a Lakota Indian.

Section 8033 reads, in its entirety: The

(a) IN GENERAL- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary of the Air Force may convey at no cost to the Air Force, without consideration, to Indian tribes located in the States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota relocatable military housing units located at Grand Forks Air Force Base and Minot Air Force Base that are excess to the needs of the Air Force.

(b) PROCESSING OF REQUESTS- The Secretary of the Air Force shall convey, at no cost to the Air Force, military housing units under subsection (a) in accordance with the request for such units that are submitted to the Secretary by the Operation Walking Shield Program on behalf of Indian tribes located in the States of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota.

(c) RESOLUTION OF HOUSING UNIT CONFLICTS- The Operation Walking Shield Program shall resolve any conflicts among requests of Indian tribes for housing units under subsection (a) before submitting requests to the Secretary of the Air Force under subsection (b).

(d) INDIAN TRIBE DEFINED- In this section, the term `Indian tribe' means any recognized Indian tribe included on the current list published by the Secretary of the Interior under section 104 of the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe Act of 1994 (Public Law 103-454; 108 Stat. 4792; 25 U.S.C. 479a-1).

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