Tribal leaders say Congress has declared war on American Indians and it's time to fight back.

The National Unity Task Force is using money and an education campaign in the battle against efforts to slash federal funding for tribal programs and to limit tribal rights in gaming and other areas.Ten tribal leaders launched a media blitz in Washington this week, hoping to convince reporters and editors to publicize the unique "trust" between the federal government and tribes.

The group also founded the first American Indian national political action committee and will use it to support candidates who back tribal concerns.

In an interview with Scripps Howard News Service, Henry Cagey, chairman of Washington state's Lummi Nation, said, "We're at war with Congress right now. This is an effort by tribal leaders to be more visible in Washington ... we are trying to forge a single voice ... to beat this problem."

The group says there is an anti-Indian backlash in state and local governments as well. Leaders blame it on jealousy over casino revenues reaped by some tribes.

Although not even half of the tribes have gaming and only a handful are wildly successful, non-Indians now seem to believe that tribes are getting rich from gambling, Cagey added.

In fact, most Americans - including many in Congress - just don't know or understand why the federal government has a special financial responsibility to American Indians, still the nation's poorest group of citizens, said Dale Risling Sr., chairman of the Hoops Valley Tribe in California.

The nation agreed generations ago to provide money for housing, education and other needs in exchange for the tribes ceding their lands to the federal government, Risling noted.

"Our lives and our governments are centered around this relationship. These documents are living documents to us," Risling said.

"We are not a minority. We are not a special-interest group. We have a unique political status based on our treaties with the federal government."

The National Unity Task Force has the support of the nation's largest Indian organization, the National Congress of American Indians. The new group was born last fall, when Cagey and others convinced leaders from many of the 554 federally recognized tribes to converge on Washington and protest proposed budget cuts.

The most severe cuts are in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It and the Indian Health Service are the main agencies dealing with tribes.

The BIA already has laid off several hundred employees. Even more devastating to many Indians are the large reductions in BIA programs that help tribes with law enforcement, sanitation and dozens of basic services.

"Appropriations are at the heart of it," Cagey said. "It's termination by appropriation."

Ferrell Secakuku, chairman of the Hopi Tribe, said the cuts have forced his tribe to free jail inmates because there is no money for heat or food. The jail is back in business but Secakuku said finances remain precarious.

The new task force singles out Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., for his decades-long antipathy toward the idea that the federal government has an eternal obligation to help tribes. Gorton contends the Indians must begin to provide for themselves, as other Americans do.

He successfully beat back efforts by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and others to beef up BIA funding for this year, arguing that every extra dollar given to Indians means a dollar taken from national parks and other federal lands.

Tribes don't like the idea of federal Medicaid and welfare money going to states as block grants instead of directly to them.

Other battlegrounds include a congressional proposal to cut federal funds to tribes that are making money on gaming, and another proposal to tax tribal gaming revenues.

Tribal leaders acknowledge they have an uphill fight on many issues, but they remain optimistic.

"We will survive," said Secakuku.

(Karen MacPherson is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service.)