The action brings the tribes closer to success than at any point in the last decade. A prior version passed the House in 2009 but it stalled in the Senate, where it never came to a committee vote. H.R.984, on the other hand, is the first to clear those same hurdles. But getting the bill over the finish line in the 115th Congress is another story. While the House in the past has embraced tribal recognition bills, they are almost always controversial due to concerns about gaming, jurisdiction and land-into-trust. So even if they clear the chamber, they usually die in the Senate. The Virginia tribes are hoping to avoid the pitfalls with H.R.984. The bill includes an airtight prohibition on gaming and imposes limits on the lands that might be placed in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs should they gain federal recognition. But there's no guarantee the conditions will help the bill in the Senate, where conservative lawmakers have routinely held up other tribal recognition bills. Some of those same lawmakers have even held up bills that are tangentially related to recognition, such as housing programs for Native Hawaiians, who also lack formal acknowledgment by the federal government.
The obstacles explain why the last tribes that gained federal recognition through the legislative process did so when Bill Clinton was president. Congress passed stand-alone recognition bills in the mid-1990s for three tribes in Michigan and another in Alaska. Two more tribes, one in California and another in Oklahoma, gained federal recognition when they were included a large "omnibus" Indian bill in December 2000. It happened to be one of the last bills signed into law by Clinton before he left office a month later. With stand-alone bills seemingly doomed to fail, the "omnibus" or bundling approach has re-surfaced in connection with the Virginia tribes. During the last session of Congress, Republicans added their bill to a larger package that would have stripped the BIA of its authority to make decisions on federal recognition petitions. But that bill never advanced due to widespread opposition in Indian Country, as well as opposition from Democrats and the Obama administration. A key Republican essentially admitted he was putting tribes and the opposite party on the spot by bundling all of the efforts together. Yet there still seems to be some nostalgia for the "omnibus" approach. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) was prepared to add provisions to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians to H.R.984 but withdrew his amendment at the business meeting on Wednesday.
"I want to make sure these tribes in Virginia are able to get their recognition" without muddying up the debate, Tester said. The Little Shell Tribe had been a part of the doomed recognition bill in the last session of Congress. Despite dropping his amendment, Tester said he plans to "push hard" to secure justice for the tribe, whose federal status is the subject of S.39, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act, as well as a federal recognition petition at the BIA. "We stand together in this fight," added Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), another member of the committee. "They've waited far too long to be formally acknowledged by the fed government," Daines said of the tribe. "We need to correct this injustice." H.R.984, which can now be considered on the Senate floor, was one of three bills approved at the business meeting on Wednesday. The committee also took action on the following measures:
• S.1285, the Oregon Tribal Economic Development Act. The bill addresses leasing and land issues for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. A hearing took place on July 12. • S.1333, the Tribal HUD-VASH Act. The bill authorizes a joint program between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide rental and housing assistance to homeless and at-risk homeless veterans in Indian Country. The program, known as Tribal HUD-VASH, began as a demonstration during the Obama administration. The committee held a hearing on the bill on June 13.Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider H.R. 984, S. 1285 & S. 1333 (September 13, 2017)
Join the Conversation
Related StoriesSenate Committee on Indian Affairs set to advance three bills at business meeting (September 11, 2017)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs cancels business meeting and hearing (July 26, 2017)
Tribes break ground on monument to their history in Virginia's capitol (June 26, 2017)
Virginia tribes still pushing for federal recognition after 400 years (June 1, 2017)
House passes bill to extend federal recognition to Virginia tribes (May 18, 2017)
Editorial: Federal recognition for tribes in Virginia is long overdue (March 24, 2017)
Lawmakers pushing for federal recognition of six tribes in Virginia (March 21, 2017)