- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 29, 2010

By any measure, 2010 was a banner year on Capitol Hill for American Indians.

And a huge factor was the pending retirement of a lone senator — Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat.

After years of trying, Congress passed several landmark bills for Indians, including laws overhauling tribal health care and law enforcement and settling a 15-year legal battle over lost royalties for mismanaged Indian lands.

Congress continued parceling out $2.5 billion in economic-stimulus money to tribes and resolved four long-standing water disputes totaling more than $1 billion.

Tribal leaders and advocates call the two-year session that ended last week the most productive for American Indians in four decades. They offer several reasons, including strong support from the Obama administration, which has made tribal issues a priority.

And there was the Dorgan factor.

Mr. Dorgan, now retired, announced last January he wouldn’t seek re-election after almost 30 years in Congress. Mr. Dorgan, then chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he then “focused like a laser” on unfinished business, including the long-stalled bills on health care and crime.

“I was flat tired of working on these issues that were never resolved,” he said in a recent interview in his Capitol office, which is adorned with Indian headdresses and tribal artwork. “I said, ‘We will get this done.’ We can fix these issues by keeping a few promises.”

Mr. Dorgan, 68, denies any attempt to craft a legacy, saying he merely wanted to complete legislation he had worked on for years.

“When children are dying and elders are dying, the time for talk is past,” he said, noting that many American Indians still “live in Third World conditions in much of this country.”

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest Indian organization in the nation, said Mr. Dorgan’s pending retirement spurred action.

“To be honest, we all knew Senator Dorgan wasn’t going to run again. There were things he felt very passionate about and really wanted to get done,” she said.

Mr. Dorgan, she added, was “a consistent, energetic and persistent advocate,” willing to listen to other viewpoints and gain bipartisan support. “I think that’s why you see so many things passed,” she said.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called Mr. Dorgan “a true champion” for Indian nations and rural communities.

The health care law, formally known as the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, was included in the larger health care overhaul passed by Congress last spring. It clears the way for more preventive care, boosts mental health resources and addresses recruiting and retaining physicians throughout Indian country. It also focuses on teen suicide — an epidemic on many reservations — and improves treatment for diabetes, another chronic problem.

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