Potawatomi Books, Gary E.  Mitchell]


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One of the tribal programs that has seen its share of frustration as well as achievements is the road and bridge program.

The road situation for countless years was a jurisdictional mess. The tribe has control over many miles of road but little money to improve and maintain the crumbling system.

On the other hand, the county commission had tax revenues coming in from white landowners on the reservation who, by this time, owned 71 percent of the reservation but still displayed an indifference to any road improvements.

What usually happened was both sides grew stubborn and nothing ever was accomplished.

Who suffered when the two governing bodies couldn't agree? The people who chose to live on the reservation - both white and Indian.

In a departure from past practice, both groups in the late 1980s came to recognize that being stubborn accomplished little, so slowly a compromise developed.

Maintenance agreements were drawn up to clearly show who was to maintain certain roads. The situation improved. This was a start, and these first steps of compromise were an essential element for progress.

Historically, the Bureau of Indian Affairs usually displayed an indifference toward general road improvement and had allocated very little road maintenance money to the tribe. That only compounded the problem.

In fact, the bureau had a strange way of doing business.

In 1987, for example, the bureau commissioned a $25,000 engineering study by a Kansas City firm. The study was designed to point out the steps by which the tribe could eventually improve the reservation roads. One key point of the study was that it would take $2.5 million to get the reservation roads up to standard.

Of course, studies are great for building up a data base, but a very basic problem remained: Where do you find the money? At the time, the tribe could have used the $25,000 for gravel instead of having someone tell the tribe what it already knew.

The tribe decided to attack the problem in increments.

With bingo revenues, a portion was allocated to road improvement. Each week Tim Ramirez, the tribe's road supervisor, and his crew put tons of gravel on the worst parts of the main road. There were plenty.

How bad was it in 1986? On one rainy night, several cars got stuck in the middle of the main road on the reservation!

While this action was a slow approach to improvement, there were, however, other alternatives.

For a good number of years, the tribe was in disfavor with the Housing and Urban Development office because of tribal management problems with a past grant. There were several outstanding monitoring findings and several thousand dollars needed to be repaid to the account to clear up the situation.

With some hard work and bingo revenues repaying the account, the problem with HUD was resolved and the tribe again was able to regain the needed contract. This $400,000 grant provided temporary employment and improvements to the tribal gymnasium, but most important of all, the bulk of the money was used for putting gravel on the reservation's main road.

While these actions never brought the roads up to standard, they did improve the situation dramatically.

The roads today are a vast improvement over what they were in 1986, but they still have a long way to go. It was a start, though. It came about because of compromise and hard work.

First published in the Topeka Capital Journal, Thursday, September 7, 1995.

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