ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The response to natural disasters and other emergencies in American Indian communities is expected to improve thanks to legislation signed into law by President Barack Obama.
Tribes are now able to seek federal disaster aid directly from the president rather than waiting for state governors to make a declaration. The provision was included in the $50.5 billion emergency measure Obama signed this week to help victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Tribes have been pushing to streamline the process for more than a decade.
Former Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno, whose northern New Mexico tribe has been struggling with the effects of one of the worst wildfires in the state's history, said in a recent interview that tribal governments were looking for a direct line of communication with Obama and his administration, especially during times of need when fires or floods are bearing down on them.
"We should not be treated as third world countries," said Dasheno, who had testified in support of the change. "We should be there at the table, sitting across from the president, addressing our needs and concerns. I think we've been on the back burner for a number of years."
The effort to include tribes in the Stafford Act, under which the federal government aids states in responding to natural disasters, gained steam last summer when Congress received letters of support from tribes, the American Red Cross and Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Fugate said tribes will be able to choose whether to make a request directly to the president or to get assistance through a state disaster declaration as they do now.
Those tribes that seek direct aid will have to meet certain requirements, including having a percentage of matching funds and disaster plans in place.
Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, said the change is a boost to tribal sovereignty and will help eliminate delays that can be critical when responding to emergencies.
"It was the frustration over the years in terms of the interaction and the process and how tribal lands and citizens have been shortchanged and left stranded by natural and technical disasters," he said. "It's just unfair and inequitable, and we're just trying to right what should be righted."
Holden noted that many tribal communities are in rural areas and sometimes encompass lands larger than some states.
At Santa Clara Pueblo, two-thirds of the tribe's forests have been charred by wildfires that have started outside the reservation's boundaries over the last 14 years. The most recent one has left the tribe with the threat of flooding for the past two summers.
In Montana, floodwaters from the Little Bighorn River and other waterways devastated parts of the Crow Indian Nation in 2011, swamping homes, businesses and churches.
A Havasupai village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon- accessible only by foot, mule or helicopter- was flooded in 2010, forcing the evacuation of tourists and causing more than $1.6 million in damages. That marked the first disaster declaration in Arizona for which a sovereign tribal nation was the sole applicant.
"There are just numerous instances where not only property but lives have been lost and there has been economic disruption," Holden said. "It's throughout Indian Country. Disasters aren't restricted to certain areas."
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