Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) takes part in an organizational meeting of the House Committee on Natural Resources on January 29, 2019. Photo: House Committee on Natural Resources: Democrats

Native lawmaker secures leadership positions on key Congressional committee

By Acee Agoyo

The first Native women in Congress continue to make strides as Democrats chart a new course in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) was selected as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources at the panel's first organizational meeting on Tuesday. She is the first Native person to hold the leadership role and it's one with significant ramifications for Indian Country.

The committee exercises jurisdiction over Indian issues so Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, will have a major say in which bills and topics come up for consideration as the 116th Congress kicks into gear.

“Our deep respect for our land, air, and water are at the heart of why my seat on the House Natural Resources Committee is so important to New Mexico," Haaland said on Tuesday, linking her background to her new position.

But that wasn't the only big news for Haaland. In a rare feat for a new member of Congress, she was named as chair of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, another area of interest to tribes and residents of her state.

“I am honored as a freshman to be elected to these leadership roles," said Haaland.

And in a further sign of change, Democrats announced the creation of a Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. The new panel, which is being chaired by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Arizona), will oversee issues affecting American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

The development marks a major shift from Republican rule, when Indian issues were grouped with those of U.S. territories that don't enjoy the same government-to-government relationship and trust and treaty obligations. Democrats had opposed that structure, which was put in place in 2015, and now that they are in power, they have restored Indian and Indigenous issues to their own place within the overall committee.

“We must work together to improve access to health care, justice, education and sustainable economic growth, to safeguard tribal water rights, and to protect sacred cultural and historical lands," Gallego said on Tuesday. "I am committed to continuing our work with Indian Country and with American Indian and Alaska Native peoples throughout the country to achieve these goals while advancing economic self-sufficiency, environmental justice, and tribal sovereignty.”

The changes come as Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) takes control of the committee. He's the new chair, following three years of serving as the ranking member when Republicans were in charge, and he's promising to take the panel in a different direction.

“Protecting our environment, taking climate change seriously, and putting the public interest first are not optional on this Committee, and that’s what Democrats are going to do every day for the next two years,” Grijalva said.

Stronger oversight of the executive branch is high on Grijalva's agenda. Among other issues, he plans to investigate why the Trump administration reduced the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah over the objections of Indian Country.

Grijalva also has re-introduced the H.R.665, the Save Oak Flat Act, in order to prevent the federal government from approving a huge copper mine on sacred Apache territory in Arizona. Republicans had refused to schedule a hearing for the bill when they were in charge of the committee.

"We urge Congress to pass this legislation to save the Oak Flat area in the Tonto National Forest from destruction by foreign mining companies," Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe said.

"The Oak Flat area, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property, is sacred to not only the San Carlos Apache Tribe but also other tribes in the region whose significance has been documented in ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies," Rambler said. "Our cultures and traditional ways of life were put in jeopardy when this special area was transferred to these mining companies in a secret back room deal without regular order or any transparency."

Republicans also alarmed tribal leaders and advocates for the way they ran the committee. Hearings on tribal homelands, federal recognition and sacred lands were often tilted against Indian interests, and may blame that on the former chairman, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who now serves as the ranking member.

"Bishop worked in Congress to undermine tribal lands and resources," the Ute Tribe said in a statement. "Bishop’s most recent attacks on the Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation include attempts to legislatively overrule the federal courts."

"Having lost in the courts, Bishop and the state of Utah introduced bills to take the tribe’s lands and waters," the statement continued. "In fact, Bishop repeatedly introduced and supported legislation that would result in the first Indian land grab in more than 100 years!"

The committee held a second organizational meeting on Wednesday as the 116th Congress moves forward. A date for the committee's first hearing hasn't been announced.

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