The late Pete Domenici, former Republican Senator from New Mexico, is seen at a building named in his honor at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. Photo: Randy Montoya / Sandia Labs
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Senate Committee on Indian Affairs mourns death of colleague Pete Domenici

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs took a moment of silence on Wednesday to honor of one of its former members, the late Pete Domenici.

Domenici died at his home in New Mexico earlier in the day at the age of 85. He retired in 2009 after serving more than three decades in the Senate, and he spent many of those years focused on helping tribes in his state and throughout Indian Country.

"He was a tireless advocate on behalf of tribes," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, as he ticked off Domenici's efforts to boost Indian health care, improve reservation roads and resolve water rights disputes.

"He lives us with a rich legacy that will endure," added Udall, who referred to Domenici as "my good friend."

Some lawmakers became emotional upon learning the news during a previously scheduled business meeting. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) was visibly shaken and credited Domenici with raising the profile of the need to address and treat mental health disorders.

"He was a great man," Franken said.

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Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), said Domenici could always be counted on to work in a bipartisan fashion. Back in 2005, he helped ensure passage of the nation's last major energy policy bill, which included a section to address Indian Country.

"We will miss him," said Cantwell, who also serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Domenici held the same position when Democrats were in charge of Congress at the time of his retirement.

Despite Domenici's mostly favorable legacy, the latter years of his Senate career were consumed by two major controversies affecting his state. One was a land claim asserted the Pueblo of Sandia and the other was an ethical investigation into alleged interference with federal prosecutors.

Domenici was openly hostile to the tribe for years, repeatedly discounting its claim of ownership to the western face of the Sandia Mountains. He pressured the Clinton and the Bush administrations to reject the tribe's attempts to include those lands within its reservation.

But he eventually relented and helped broker a settlement that recognized the tribe's interests in the land. The settlement became law in February 2003.

The ethical controversy nearly derailed his Senate career over contacts he made with the top federal prosecutor in New Mexico around the time of the November 2006 elections. He announced his retirement about a year later but attributed it to health issues. He later went public with his diagnosis of a degenerative brain disease.

Domenici's legacy lives on with the Pete V. Domenici Indian Affairs Building in Albuquerque's downtown. The facility houses Bureau of Indian Affairs offices and is located on land own by the 19 Pueblo tribes of New Mexico. The tribes lease the land to the BIA.

“During his term as Senator, he has been a friend not only to Navajo but to many other tribes,” President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation said in a press release. “We will miss him and we extend our condolences to his family and to his constituents including the Navajo Nation.”

“Senator Domenici listened to our plight and understood the need for our children to attend school near their homes where they can practice their religion, preserve their traditions, history, language, and culture,” added Ivan Sidney, a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe. He credited Domenici with securing funding for the high school on the reservation in Arizona.