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Grand Forks Herald, Published January 08 2011

Editorial: Dorgan honored natives

When Republicans took control of the U.S. House this week, their first order of business was to read the U.S. Constitution aloud.

Byron Dorgan’s presence would remind House members that the Constitution does more than establish limited government and the separation of powers. In particular, the Constitution spells out the rules governing our country’s relations with American Indians.

And more than almost any other member of Congress in decades, Dorgan tried to make sure the U.S. government honored these neglected rules.

Dorgan retired from the Senate this week and will be remembered for a great many accomplishments. But of all of them, the most noble might just be his insistence that America remember the Constitution’s Article I and Article VI.

For those are the articles that give Congress the power to “regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” and declare that “all Treaties made ... shall be the supreme Law of the Land.”

“The supreme Law of the Land.” The fact that the Constitution describes treaties in this way is inconvenient for people who’d like to see Indian reservations go away. But that’s too bad because the language is plain, and the founders’ intentions are clear.

For just as the Constitution guarantees certain rights, it also imposes certain obligations. One of these is the obligation to honor treaties – including treaties with Indian tribes, which the document lists on a level with “foreign nations” and “the several States.” ...

Where American Indians are concerned, Dorgan for 30 years pressed the U.S. government to live up to the Constitution’s plain text. He didn’t have to take on this mission. He won all of his re-election campaigns by big margins, which meant he had little need to court the Indian vote. ...

But Dorgan focused on Indian issues anyway, chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and making real progress on key issues.

To cite just one recent example: “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,” The Associated Press reported. ...

Dorgan’s push to get the issues resolved before he retired was the decisive factor, advocates agree.

The overriding issue is one of both human decency and constitutional principle, Dorgan has said.

Remember, “we are talking about the first Americans,” he said in his farewell speech to the Senate last month.

“They were here first. ... They greeted all of us. They now live in third-world conditions in much of this country, and we have to do better.

“We have to keep our promises, and we have to honor our treaties.” In other words, as Dorgan reminded us, we must carry out our commitments as per articles I and VI.