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White House Hosts First-Ever Tribal Youth Gathering

Washington, D.C. at the White House.

Washington, D.C. at the White House.

Earlier this month, the White House held the first-ever Tribal Youth Gathering, hosting more than 1,000 Native American students from 230 tribes in 42 states. Attendees met with First Lady Michelle Obama, members of the White House Council on Native American Affairs and cabinet officials.

What attendees heard from the First Lady is striking and true: “Each of you was put on this Earth for a reason. Each of you has something that you’re destined to do, whether that’s raising a beautiful family, whether that’s succeeding in a profession or leading your community into a better future. You all have a role to play and we need you.”

At the gathering, the White House announced that the U.S. Department of the Interior will issue $995,000 to 20 tribal colleges and universities and award seven tribal applicants $1.145 million to enhance their tribal education departments.

The White House is not just providing monetary support to Native Americans, it’s providing something our organization strives to achieve every day – a sense of hope. The First Lady didn’t skirt by the struggles Native Americans have faced. She recognized that America has not always “treated [Native] people with dignity and respect.” But she added, “Make no mistake about it, your customs, your values, your discoveries are at the heart of the American story.”

We’re looking forward to what President Obama’s Generation Indigenous (Gen-I), which aims to improve the lives Native American youth and cultivate the next generation of tribal leaders, brings in the future. The This initiative paved the way for the Tribal Youth Gathering, championing hope for a brighter future.

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Pamunkey Are the First Virginia Tribe with Federal Recognition

It was a good day – July 2, 2015 – a day of vindication when the Pamunkey became federally recognized, and we are excited for the benefits this will bring their people. When I read the good news, so many thoughts rushed in:  how long the Pamunkey have worked toward federal status, how it will support economic growth and how other tribes can learn from them. All the tribes in Virginia have state recognition, but the Pamunkey are the first of 11 Virginia tribes to gain federal recognition.

Being from Virginia, I have visited the Pamunkey and have always been impressed with the way they make their livelihood from the river – in harmony with what their natural environment offers them. They operate a fish hatchery that “keeps fish in the river and food on the table,” to borrow words from Pamunkey member Carl Custalow. If you’re on your way to Kings Dominion, I encourage you to stop by and visit with this friendly nation.

Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown of the smallest and oldest documented tribe in Virginia. (By Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown of the smallest and oldest documented tribe in Virginia. (By Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

A woodland tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, the Pamunkey have just over 200 enrolled members; about 36 members live on the 1,200-acre reservation, the rest throughout Virginia and the U.S. Still located on the banks of the Pamunkey River in King William County near Richmond, Va., the tribe has occupied this land since the Colonial Era in the 1600s. At that time, the tribe had about 1,000 members.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention this point of history: Virginia’s tribes have occupied the state since before the first settlers at Jamestown. They contributed greatly to the survival of the early settlers and continue to contribute to the strength of the state and the United States today. And that brings me to my next point. We have written before on our blog about how it is possible to be an “unrecognized tribe.” This is dumbfounding given that the indigenous people of this nation were here before all of us, but it is possible. The Pamunkey Tribe spent decades researching, documenting and working with federal authorities to meet the complex requirements of federal recognition. They are a good role model that shows other tribes how perseverance pays off.

There is more good news too. The Obama administration and Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and Indian Affairs have been working to streamline the federal recognition process and make it more transparent, timely and consistent without disrupting the integrity of decisions over the past 40 years. Their new federal recognition process is available on their website.

The Pamunkey Tribe will explore a range of opportunities for economic development. Six other Virginia tribes are seeking federal recognition too – the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond. I encourage all of you to learn about the tribes in your state, their contributions and how federal recognition can free up their economies to not only earn more, but also contribute more to your state and your region.

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Reservation Animal Rescue Helps Everyone

When you think of the welfare of Native Americans in our country, what needs come to mind? Food, housing, capacity building – those are all needs and ones that our organization addresses. How about veterinary services and animal overpopulation? Sounds a little bit out of left field, but it is in fact an important and needed area of assistance on many reservations.

While seeing a stray dog or cat might raise concerns for the animal – does it have a home, will it find food – concern also needs to be addressed for the human population in which the animal resides. Overpopulated and stray animals can pose real health risks to humans, ranging from animal bites to disease, and this risk is especially high in certain reservation communities.

Rezzy, the day of her rescue and now

Rezzy, the day of her rescue and now

The Navajo Nation alone has estimates reaching as high as 6,000 stray dogs, depending on the community. Imagine living among enough stray dogs to fill every seat in the Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University – twice. Then imagine trying to address an animal population of that size, and you have quite a challenge on your hands.

Because of this, our organization addresses the issue proactively. Instead of treating humans for animal bites, we provide assistance to animal welfare groups that vaccinate and spay/neuter animals on the reservations. Instead of trying to literally herd cats, we support these partners who educate communities on how to properly care for animals and enable them to care for more animals. Instead of wishing we could help, we actually do help by working with donors and reservation partners.

Lola of Oglala Pet Project after a winter rescue

Lola of Oglala Pet Project after a winter rescue

Last year, that help amounted to thousands of pounds of donated food benefiting 49,683 animals under our partners’ care. This support reduced animal health risk and related community health risk for people on 18 reservations. Additionally, we provided grant funding for a mobile spay/neuter clinic operated by one of our partners serving numerous Navajo communities.

Our programs serve a number of needs, but we’re especially proud to provide assistance that helps both humans and animals. Your personal contribution can help these efforts; consider donating today.


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Why I Am Proud to Be a Native American in the U.S.

As we reflect on the recent July 4th holiday and all the celebrations that took place across the United States, I feel a sense of personal pride. This truly is a great country in which to live. But, more specifically, I feel proud to be a part of it and to be a Native American.

I am a Native man living in a country that has had its fair share of wars, disputes and worse with Native people since the recorded history of America and even before. Is it true there are many broken treaties and historical traumas horrific in scope? Yes. Is it also difficult to sift through all that has passed – to the extent history and lost history allow – and see where we as Americans and Native Americans are today? Absolutely. And are all of these issues incredibly complex and still at the heart of many contemporary conflicts and misunderstandings today? Without a doubt.

Murray Lee - sizedYet, what I am thinking about now as I put pen to paper is the idea that “who I am” and “who I exist as” are two things that necessarily exist as concurrent ideologies and lives. I am a Native American and a tribally enrolled member of a very specific tribe, and I am also a citizen of the United States – living out two very different meanings in a single lifetime.

I do not see this as a negative. Rather, it is borne of the idea that, despite all the historical challenges between my nation and the United States, I still find the commonalities of good in this country where I live. I realize the sacrifices my Grandfathers made as they stood against the United States, and also the sacrifices my tribe and many other tribes made as they helped defend this country through many wars.

While the U.S. population was nearly 1.4 percent American Indian, the Native veteran population was 1.7 percent, “making it the highest per-capita commitment of any ethnic population to defend the United States.” So, the idea that the United States is worth fighting for, while at the same time revering the Native warrior tradition, is an idea not at all lost on the tens of thousands of Native Americans who served in this country’s wars.

So, to come back to my point…  I am proud to be a Native American in the United States because as both, I find an identity worth being proud of and exemplary traits within each culture. I am proud of the brave warriors, both military and political, in both cultures who fought for what was right throughout very distinct histories, for that inherent sense of right and helping when help is needed, without any thought of being paid back.

Beyond this, I find the progress we have made together encouraging, although frustrating and slow at times. Is there much more for both Native Americans and the United States to do to reach full harmony and assuage treaty obligations and socio-economic conditions? Of course. But, that does not, and it cannot, diminish the sense of pride and accomplishment we have achieved by being both Native Americans and American citizens.

So, in closing, I am very proud that both my Native American Grandfathers and Grandmothers, as well as my contemporary U.S. culture, have fought so hard and done what was necessary so that I could exist today – even as we continue to learn and progress toward what is right and fair. This duality is at the very heart of who I am, a very complex yet singular human being from two very distinct cultures.

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College is a Realistic and Necessary Goal for Native Youth

Kelly H. graduated college and teaches on her home reservation, Navajo.

Kelly H. graduated college and teaches on her home reservation, Navajo.

In the midst of the hot, long summer days when children are free from classrooms, school is often the last thing on everyone’s minds. And unfortunately, that thinking can bleed into the school year, as many youth do not see postsecondary education (or college) as a realistic goal. Seemingly, nor should they, based on the raw numbers alone.

Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, co-director of the Pueblo Indian doctoral-training project (spearheaded by Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation and Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute), said in an Arizona Republic article that “of 100 Alaskan or Native Americans who start ninth grade, 48 will graduate from high school, 20 will go on to postsecondary education, and only one will finish a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting. One in 2,500 Natives earns a master’s degree, and one in 7,000 earns a Ph.D.” In another report by the U.S. Census and based on 2006-2010 data, 13 percent of Native Americans hold bachelor’s degrees.

But, things are starting to change, thanks to programs like the Pueblo Indian doctoral-training project that graduated a cohort of 10 Ph.D. students at Arizona State University in May; this is believed to be one of the largest groups of Native Americans to earn doctorates at the same time and place.

Aaron S. graduated college and pursued his Master's in physical therapy.

Aaron S. graduated college and pursued his Master’s in physical therapy.

The new reality is that postsecondary education is not only attainable but supported by Native communities and partners. To help end the cycle of poverty through education, our organization offers scholarships, college grants, emergency funding, college readiness camps, and literacy and school supplies through the AIEF program for American Indians.

Vaughn V., a student at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT), working to complete a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering, recently received an AIEF scholarship. He shared, “I did not see myself as an engineer growing up. I had no interest in doing math and science. I didn’t see the value in it.”  When he discovered Industrial Engineering held the greatest opportunities for him, he changed his major. Vaughn explains, “Engineering was the best route, but I wasn’t prepared for math and science. I gave up so many times, but I was persistent. And here I am taking Calculus 3 and going onto Differential Equations.”

Vaughn is one of 210 Native American students awarded scholarships through the AIEF program in 2014, which granted a total of $349,000 to students from 22 tribes. “My motivation is helping my community; there’s a lot we can do,” says Vaughn. “I’m really excited to make some of the changes happen.”

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Say What? Free Native Housing Isn’t Free?

It must be good to be Native American… Free food. Free healthcare. Free college education. Free housing. Plus, monthly checks from the government and tribal casinos. It’s about time I look into that Cherokee Princess Grandmother I’ve always heard about and get myself some of those benefits. All I have to do is get myself enrolled in a federally recognized tribe and I’ll have it made. I’ll get myself one of those free houses, move out of Mom’s basement, and spend the rest of my days as I see fit. Maybe I’ll paint my masterpiece. Yeah, I like the sound of that.

Free Housing - 1Glenna Mae ROh, wait… Say what? You mean that isn’t true? I thought Native Americans got everything for free from the federal government because of the treaties. You mean to tell me that, according to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), one in four Native households spend a third or more of their household income on housing?

Not only do Native Americans pay for housing… their housing and living conditions are considered some of the worst in the United States. For example, NCAI reports that 40 percent of reservation housing is considered substandard and nearly one-third of reservation homes are overcrowded. On top of this, fewer than half of reservation homes connect to public sewer systems and 16 percent lack indoor plumbing.

Free Housing - SWIRC-Bucket Full of Wood 3-Hoskie Red HouseThe Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 (NAHASDA) was passed to ensure tribes greater self-governance in providing HUD housing assistance to tribal members. Under NAHASDA, tribes have access to both the Indian Housing Block Grant (IHBG) and the Title VI Loan Guarantee Program. The IHBG issues grant funding to tribes for affordable housing development and rehab, land acquisition and infrastructure for housing, as well as crime prevention and safety. The Title VI loans are a public investment tool offered to tribes that receive IHBG awards.

NAHASDA was reauthorized in 2002 and 2008 but expired in September 2013. An amended NAHASDA passed in the House of Representatives in March of 2015 but was referred by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee and awaits approval.

Until the federal government reauthorizes NAHASDA, federally recognized tribes are losing out on important funding opportunities that could help address serious housing challenges on many reservations. NRC home repairs benefit Native American Elders living in unsafe conditions, yet there is much more to do. With the wait list for tribal housing assistance already upwards of three years, a lot is riding on NAHASDA funding.

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BIE Schools & Free Education for Native Americans

There is a misconception about Native Americans getting a free ride through college. Many people misunderstand the term “Native American Scholarships” and think that perhaps these are actually ways that Native Americans get free tuition. In addition, many people believe the U.S. government pays for college for Native Americans.

Well, let me tell you, this could not be further from the truth. Yes, there are large scholarships, but being awarded a four-year award such as the Gates Millennium Scholarship is no easy task. And, competition for scholarships is heavy. Native Americans, just as any other ethnic group, must submit the same applications and write numerous essays and compete academically, and even then may not be selected to receive scholarship funding.

Havasupai Elementary, a BIE school located the base of the Grand Canyon -- home to the Havasupai Tribe.

Havasupai Elementary, a BIE school located the base of the Grand Canyon — home to the Havasupai Tribe.

Perhaps the misconception around free college education for Native Americans comes, in part, from the BIE schools on many reservations. These federally funded schools are part of the treaties the United States made with Native American tribes in the promise of an Anglo education. On the surface, this sounds good yet has nothing to do with college. What’s more, many BIE schools struggle with underfunding, high staff turnover and physical disrepair, and when the government decides to make budget cuts, BIE school budgets are often affected.

BIE Schools - NRC-CC-Food Demo-2012 (27)In fact, “Funding for replacement schools, improvements and repairs to BIE schools has fallen by 76 percent over the past decade,” creating a perfect storm for Native American children to fall behind their peers at public schools. It is a disgrace to further slow childhood learning for innocent and underprivileged Native children. “Many schools serve some of the nation’s poorest and most remote communities. Test scores for the [BIE] system’s 49,079 students lag those of both Indians and non-Indians in public schools.”

Add to this the physical discomfort experienced by students at some of the BIE schools that lack adequate facilities to keep students warm and sheltered from the elements – this is no exaggeration. In northern Minnesota conditions at a BIE school are such that it has “a roof that caves in under heavy snowfall, a failing heating system that has many students wearing coats and blankets in class as soon as the weather turns and a sewer system that backs up during extreme cold — all adding to the discomforts and indignities of an aging, metal ‘pole barn’ that has to be evacuated when wind gusts top 40 miles per hour.”

So, taking all of this into account… schools that are physically decrepit, understaffed and underfunded; stiff competition for scholarships and the poverty associated with living on a rural and remote reservation where Indian reservation unemployment can reach up to 80% — well, it is inspiring, to say the least, that Native Americans do attend and thrive in college. But, their time in college is definitely not free – they pay the financial cost, the emotional cost, and the same uncertainty about employment after school that many Americans face.

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HealthCare for Native Americans

Health-Spider Rock 3-Juan Begay, CHR Judie TsosieThere is a prevalent misunderstanding regarding the nature of federal healthcare for American Indians. The Indian Health Service (I.H.S.) under the Department of Health and Human Services provides health services to federally recognized tribes based on the special government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribes dating as far back as 1787. This obligation arises out of treaties and other legal mandates.

Yet, while the federal government is obligated to provide healthcare for these tribes, I.H.S. is not immune to the cuts facing many federal programs. As Montana Senator and member of the Indian Affairs Committee, Jon Tester, highlighted in a 2014 NPR interview, I.H.S. is struggling to fulfill its obligation.

Of late, I.H.S. has found itself unable to make it through a fiscal year without running out of funds. Combined with the challenge of recruiting healthcare professionals to rural and remote I.H.S. facilities, this makes for a real crisis in providing quality healthcare to American Indian communities.

In response, the I.H.S. is limiting treatment to only the most sensitive cases such as those involving loss of life or limb. Fewer resources are available for preventative care that can address health issues before they become a serious condition. The I.H.S. simply cannot prioritize non-life threatening needs or pay for patient referrals outside of the I.H.S. system, and however minor, well-being and quality of life for tribal members reliant on I.H.S. care is directly affected by untreated medical needs. This is why NRC supports health screenings, health education and other initiatives by tribally-operated health and wellness programs and our partners who work for them. NRC Health Services benefited 287,209 Native Americans in 2014.

Healthcare for Native Americans - SWIRC-Event 10B-Brian Uriarte, Va. Matus, and Dr. Molina (PO)Another response to the I.H.S. situation is the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), through which efforts are underway to enroll American Indians in affordable private insurance plans. Private plans offer American Indians more healthcare providers and services than available through I.H.S.  In addition, private plan holders may still access I.H.S. healthcare covered by private insurance, which redirects funds back into I.H.S.

There are, however, legitimate concerns with private insurance enrollment too. In 2013, less than half a percent of individuals who enrolled in private insurance under ObamaCare are American Indians. To increase Native enrollment in Obamacare, significant community outreach, education and assurance of affordability will be required.

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Tribes Leading the Way: 5 Points of Progress

As a 501(c) (3) nonprofit committed to championing hope for a brighter future for Native Americans living on remote, isolated and impoverished reservations, NRC is always encouraged by the progress we see happening for tribal communities. Progress toward economic development, infrastructure and social change often comes in small increments but adds up to big gains over time. Here are 5 points of progress we’ve seen in recent years for the tribes in our service area:

1.  Sustainable Housing Alternatives: Tribes Leading the Way - NAVAJO 1 - HoganWith 90,000 Native Americans homeless, tribes are looking at alternative forms of sustainable housing. While the waiting list for tribal housing is often 3+ years, straw bale homes are a good alternative. Straw bale homes are affordable, quick to build, environmentally friendly, and constructed from natural materials that are locally available in remote communities. Red Feather Development builds straw bale houses in Native American communities throughout Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, as part of the American Indian Sustainable Housing Initiative. NRC Program Partners have also shared about the introduction of straw bale homes on the Hopi Reservation. Another plus, some straw bale houses integrate solar panels to support hot water, floor heating and systems to catch rainwater – an important opportunity for reservation communities with contaminated ground water.

2.  Closing the Digital Divide: On March 12, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission released the Open Internet Order to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility. An Open Internet represents unlimited possibility for rural Native communities and improves the opportunity to build tribal nations and economies. In addition, federal stimulus funding was awarded in 2011 to help bring high-speed Internet access to 5 Indian reservations in the state of Arizona, including Navajo, Hopi, San Carlos Apache, Tohono O’odham and Havasupai (in the base of the Grand Canyon). The federal stimulus also funded fiber-optic cabling and building of microwave towers in New Mexico and Utah for the Navajo Nation. Often the reservation schools on these tribal lands lack the computers and basic Internet access that many students in America now take for granted. Beginning to close the digital divide between Indian country and the rest of the world will, over time, “increase college enrollment and completion, improve the quality and efficiency of health care and strengthen the business economy on reservations, which would attract outside companies needed for a competitive, healthy market,” as noted by Carl Artman, professor and director of the Economic Development in Indian Country program at Arizona State University.

3.  Alternative Energy Development: NRC offers the AIRC winter fuel service because depletion of the energy assistance budget by mid-winter is an annual challenge for some tribes. Today, we are encouraged to see tribes at the forefront of many renewable energy projects. No stranger to working in harmony with nature, alternative energy development bodes well for practical needs and future economic development of the tribes. Currently, the Oneida Reservation in Wisconsin has a solar renewable energy project to meet electricity and hot water needs. The Manzanita Reservation in California has a hybrid wind-and-solar project and Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico has an off-grid project. These are just a few of the leading edge renewable energy projects the tribes are undertaking today.  On the Fort Berthold and Rosebud reservations in North Dakota and South Dakota, massive wind turbine projects are underway that will provide key insights about the viability of wind energy and the possibility of commercial-scale wind energy production.

4.  Native American Business Growth: In the five-year period from 2002 to 2007, the number of Native American small businesses increased 17.7 percent. Today numbering about 300,000, Native-owned businesses continue to grow in small increments. While only 8% of the businesses actually create jobs, collectively these firms employ 184,416 people — representing sustainable gains through self-employment.

Tribes Leading the Way - Older americans, traditional foods - Aubrey - Tilling 15.  Food Sovereignty Initiatives: A number of tribes in our Northern Plains service area are embracing food sovereignty and food security. Gardening, for instance, is on the rise among Northern Plains tribes. Families of the Standing Rock Reservation are actively involved with gardening and a farmer’s market, facilitated by an NRC partner who coordinates the Native Gardens Project through the tribe’s Diabetes Program. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, one partner started a youth garden project that blossomed into a community-wide gardening movement, with individual family gardens, garden training, a farmer’s market, a canning station and a greenhouse. This summer, NRC will begin operating a mobile food truck that follows our fresh produce distributions across the Northern Plains reservations to conduct healthy cooking demos with fresh vegetables. These types of projects are especially important for reservations designated as food deserts by the USDA. For some families, raising and selling fresh produce has also become a new income stream.

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Native Actors Walk Off Set of “Ridiculous Six”

“The movie has ‘ridiculous’ in the title for a reason — because it’s ridiculous. It is a broad satire of Western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of — but in on — the joke.”        (Netflix response to Native actors walking off the set of Ridiculous Six)

Netflix makes a good argument, absolving themselves of any possible wrongdoing related to the film Ridiculous Six. In their view, it isn’t plausible for someone to find a film offensive when they are in on the joke. But, when ethnic actors feel like the joke is “on them” – as opposed to being “in on” it, some serious implications arise.

Actors Saginaw Grant, Loren Anthony on "Ridiculous Six" set. Source:

Actors Saginaw Grant, Loren Anthony on “Ridiculous Six” set. Source:

It seems Netflix has missed the point of what made about a dozen Native actors walk off set, along with the film’s cultural advisor for the Netflix production. The Ridiculous Six team is suggesting it knows what a “Native American” is, what the stereotypes are, and how to parody them.

Do they? Or do they merely reflect mainstream culture’s definition and perception of Native America?

What led the Native American actors to leave the set were things like female characters named Beaver Breath, Smoking Fox and Never-Wears-Bra, as well as a scene in which a female character urinates while smoking a “peace pipe,” not to mention actors of various ethnicities (including Native Americans) having darkening makeup applied to appear more Native.

Perhaps of greater concern is how mainstream audiences will respond to the supposed satire in Ridiculous Six. Considering how the film may reinforce stereotypes through its attempt at parody, I’m left wondering whether its audiences will be in on the joke.

The film Ridiculous Six starring Adam Sandler has been pitched as a parody of the Western film The Magnificent Seven and the Western genre as a whole. A well-done satire of the genre and the stereotypes it perpetuates would be a good thing as Western films have been anything but authentic in representing Native Americans. (See my earlier blog topic: Not a Reel Injun.)

Native Actors Walk Off SetInstead, Ridiculous Six is most likely going to give audiences more of the same. Despite whatever role the Native American cultural advisor played in the film’s development, Ridiculous Six is still a product from outside the Native American community – the authority and power in representing Native Americans remaining with Netflix, Sandler, and other key players. The film has the potential to fuel a continuing ignorance about Native Americans in Hollywood and throughout America.

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