Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, greets Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) following the conclusion of a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs listening session in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
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Donald Trump's surprise FBI firing upends Senate Committee on Indian Affairs





Partisan outrage over the sudden firing of the nation's top law enforcement official is affecting Indian Country's agenda on Capitol Hill.

Tribal officials who traveled thousands of miles to Washington, D.C., found themselves in the middle of a political drama that nearly ground the U.S. Senate to a halt on Wednesday afternoon. One witness came all the way from Alaska to push for a health care bill while another from New Mexico was there, ironically, to talk about a key law enforcement initiative.

But controversy over President Donald Trump upended their efforts. Democrats, upset by the surprise ouster of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, invoked a rule that prevented committee activities from occurring past noon on Wednesday.

Republicans have utilized the so-called "two hour" rule in the past, when they were in the minority in the chamber. But now that they are in charge, they were forced to scramble as they dealt with the fallout from Trump's latest unexpected maneuver.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada) participate in a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs listening session in Washington, D.C., on May 10, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

In this situation, Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the new GOP chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, tried to salvage a previously scheduled business meeting and legislative hearing, according to an aide. But his motion to proceed with the committee's activities was rejected, the aide said.

As a result, the committee was forced to postpone the meeting, during which a bill to recruit and retain Indian teachers and another to extend federal recognition to six tribes in Virginia were due to be advanced to the floor. Both measures, ironically, enjoy bipartisan support.

The hearing, on the other hand, had to be canceled altogether. But Hoeven decided to proceed with a listening session instead -- an activity not prohibited by the Senate's rules, according to the aide -- and the witnesses were able to give their testimony, albeit in a different form.

"Even though we're in a listening session, it's very powerful to say these words to you," Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council, told lawmakers and their staff.

A tribute to Ashlynne Mike is seen in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The 11-year-old girl was abducted and murdered on the Navajo Nation in May 2016. Photo by Dezzo Stanley

Crotty came to D.C. to testify in support of S.772, the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act. The bill ensures that tribes, for the first time, can receive federal funds to help them develop child abduction alert systems.

The Navajo Nation doesn't maintain its own AMBER Alert system so it relies on the states of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to disseminate information about missing children. Some on the reservation -- the largest in the United States -- believe the lack of infrastructure contributed to the murder of an 11-year-old girl in May 2016.

"Our people need to know that we are in charge and we are able to protect our children," Crotty said as she acknowledged the kidnapping and death of Ashlynne Mike on the New Mexico portion of the reservation.

The testimony from the second tribal witness wasn't as emotional but the message was equally important. Charles Clement, the president and chief executive officer of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, called on the committee to support a bill that he said will bring his people's health care into the 21st century.

The Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, Alaska, is the oldest in the state and one of the oldest in the nation. Photo: Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium

S.825, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Land Transfer Act. authorizes the transfer of land owned by the Indian Health Service to the Native organization. The 19-acre parcel will be used to build a new hospital that will serve people who live in a huge area in the southeast portion of the state.

"It is a challenge" to provide adequate health care at the Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, Clement said. At 68 years of age, the facility is the oldest in Alaska and one of the oldest in the U.S.

"It looks like something that was built by the Department of War," Clement added. The large concrete structure, which was constructed by the U.S. military, suffers from numerous problems, including asbestos contamination, he said, so building something entirely new is seen as the only feasible solution.

Similar legislation has been enacted and signed into law for other Native health organizations in Alaska, Clement pointed out.

Even though the session was not an official hearing, the committee recorded all of the witness testimony.

As for the business meeting, a new date will be scheduled to consider S.458, the Native Educator Support and Training Act (NEST Act). The bill aims to recruit and retain teachers in Indian Country by providing new scholarships, federal student loan forgiveness and teacher development courses.

The other bill that awaits action is S.691, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act. The bill extends federal recognition to six tribes in Virginia who were among the first to sign treaties with European nations but whose status has never been formally acknowledged by the U.S.

"We will work expeditiously on these very good pieces of legislation," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the new Democratic vice chairman of the committee, said at the close of the listening session.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices:
Business Meeting to Consider S. 458 & S. 691 (May 10, 2017)
Legislative Hearing to Receive Testimony on S. 772 and S. 825 (May 10, 2017)

Related Stories:
President Trump fires director of Federal Bureau of Investigation (May 10, 2017)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee adds business meeting to agenda (May 8, 2017)
Witness list for Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on two bills (May 8, 2017)
Senate panel takes up bill to bring AMBER Alert funding to tribes (April 28, 2017)
Bill brings funding for AMBER Alert systems to Indian Country (April 18, 2017)