National | Politics

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs sets hearing on Trump administration 'priorities'






National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby and other tribal leaders at the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 15, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

UPDATE: Please note that the hearing has been moved up to March 8, 2017.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is gearing up for its next hearing of the 115th Congress.

Lawmakers will meet March 15 to learn about the new Trump administration's "priorities" for Indian Country. A witness list hasn't been posted online but similar hearings in the past have featured federal officials and tribal leaders, although not always at the same time.

So far, Republican President Donald Trump hasn't said anything about Indian issues but he has failed to include tribes in his directives on infrastructure, a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration and public safety. His Cabinet includes officials who have advocated anti-Indian positions on tribal courts, sovereign immunity and Indian health.

As a result, tribal leaders and advocates remain extremely cautious about the new political climate in Washington. Many remain focused on cultivating bipartisan relationships with members of Congress in light of the uncertainty.

"People ask me if we’re nervous," Ernie Stevens, the longtime chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, said as the National Congress of American Indians met in Washington, D.C., last week for its annual winter session.

Stevens, who is a citizen of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, tells people he isn't. "We’ve got Indian people on the front line" ready to stand up to defend tribal interests, he said.

Trump's team is also going without the Cabinet position considered most important for tribes. The Senate isn't due to consider the nomination of Ryan Zinke to be Secretary of the Interior until the end of the month, stretching out the confirmation process to early March, an unusually long delay for the position.

Zinke has won praise from tribal leaders for his pro-sovereignty stances. But without his direction at the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agency's priorities are not yet clear.

And when it comes to federal funding for the BIA, lawmakers aren't expecting concrete direction from the new administration for quite some time. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate subcommittee in charge of Interior's programs, said it could be May before Trump's team sends a fiscal year 2018 budget to Congress.

"It's Congress that determines what is funded, not the administration," Murkowski, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said at a briefing on Capitol Hill hosted by Native women. "They can propose it, but we dispose it."

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on “Identifying Indian Affairs priorities for the Trump Administration” (March 15, 2017)