Cecilia Fire Thunder, the president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, testifies at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 2019. Photo: SCIA

Lawmakers set to advance more Indian Country legislation after end of year rush

WASHINGTON, D.C -- After an end-of-year push in which Indian Country's legislative agenda drew widespread attention thanks to one of President Donald Trump's tweets, more pro-tribal bills are being teed up for action in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House Committee on Natural Resources is meeting on Wednesday for a markup, the panel's first of the new year. The agenda for the session includes three measures affecting tribal education, tribal homelands and tribal territories.

Among them is H.R.895, the Tribal School Federal Insurance Parity Act. The bill corrects an oversight in existing law by providing employees of tribal grant schools with the ability to participate in federal health and life insurance programs.

Teachers, administrators and staffers at Bureau of Indian Education institutions are already eligible for such benefits, as are employees of federal schools run by tribes through self-determination contracts. But tribal grant workers are not covered, so legislation is needed to "close the loophole," according to Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota).

Indianz.Com Video: Hearing on the Tribal School Federal Insurance Parity Act

"Ensuring that children in tribal areas have access to high-quality education is one of the most critically important challenges facing out country," Johnson, who introduced H.R.895 in January 2019 in one of his first actions as a new member of Congress, said at a hearing on his bill last year.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, the president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, also provided testimony at the hearing, which took place before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. She said tribal grant schools will be able to save money by accessing federal benefit programs, a major improvement in light of historical underfunding of Indian education by the U.S. government.

"This simple and clean legislative fix would directly benefit our schools," Fire Thunder, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said on July 16, 2019. She noted that the six tribal grant schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota employ more than 500 people.

Fire Thunder previously testified on the measure during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last May. The panel responded by approving S.279, the companion version of the Tribal School Federal Insurance Parity Act, at a business meeting that same month.

S.279 awaits further action in the U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands. But with the markup on Wednesday, H.R.895 is one step closer to passage in the Democratic-controlled House.

Posted by Isna Wica Owayawa (Loneman School) on Wednesday, December 18, 2019
Students at Isna Wica Owayawa (Loneman School), a tribal grant schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

A second pro-tribal bill being marked up on Wednesday is H.R.3160, the Blackwater Trading Post Land Transfer Act. The bill places 55.3 acres in trust for the Gila River Indian Community.

The land is home to former Blackwater Trading Post, where Gila River ancestors conducted business for decades. It's also contiguous to the tribe's reservation in Arizona.

Usually, such acquisitions are routinely approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs but a provision in the tribe's water rights settlement requires all trust acquisitions to go through Congress. So the tribe needs the legislative branch of the U.S. government to take action.

"H.R.3160 is a non-controversial, bipartisan piece of legislation that is absolutely critical for the community to be able to place these culturally significant lands into trust status and become part of the Reservation," Governor Stephen Roe Lewis said at a hearing before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples last October.

The Senate version of the bill is S.2912, which was introduced by Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in November. The measure awaits further consideration in the chamber.

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community testifies before the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States on October 16, 2019. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

The third pro-tribal bill on the markup agenda is H.R.2640, the Buffalo Tract Protection Act. The bill, introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, protects ancestral tribal lands from development.

Specifically, the bill prevents the Bureau of Land Management from allowing sand and gravel mining on public parcels near Placitas, New Mexico. The area is already home to six such operations, with residents of nearby communities, along with the Pueblo of San Felipe and the Pueblo of Santa Ana, in opposition to further exploitation.

"These parcels serve as critical connections for wildlife moving between the Sandia Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains," Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said at a hearing on her bill last September. "They also provide invaluable recreational open space in this growing area and are home to cultural resources important to neighboring Pueblos."

S.526 is the Senate version of the Buffalo Tract Protection Act. It's already been approved by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and awaits further action in that chamber.

"These lands belong to the public who should have a say in decisions that would endanger the ancestral land of nearby pueblos and the public resources of southern Sandoval county residents,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), a co-sponsor and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The Tribal School Federal Insurance Parity Act, the Blackwater Trading Post Land Transfer Act and the Buffalo Tract Protection Act must complete a few more hurdles before they can get across the finish line in the 116th Congress. The session began in January 2019 and so far a handful of pro-tribal legislative bills -- three stand-alone plus three additional items -- have cleared both the House and the Senate and have been signed into law.

The list includes S.256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act. The new law -- named in honor of the late Esther Martinez, a Pueblo educator -- provides $13 million a year for Native language programs, reversing decades of federal policy in which Native peoples were discouraged or prevented from speaking their own languages.

“Our indigenous languages and traditions help keep our rich culture alive, but the programs that support language preservation are underfunded and often times lack funding altogether," Haaland said after S.256 became law on December 20, 2019. "Now that our bill honoring the legacy of Pueblo storyteller and self-taught linguist, Esther Martinez, is signed into law, we will move forward on important work to revitalize our languages and traditions."

Indianz.Com Video: S.256, Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act

Another new law is S.216, the Spokane Tribe of Indians of the Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act. The bill compensates the Spokane Tribe for the loss of its lands to the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state.

“The Spokane Tribe of Indians has waited for almost 80 years to receive just and equitable compensation for the land, life, and culture they lost when the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and a former chair of the panel. "This corrects a flawed adjudication process that left the Spokane out."

Indianz.Com Video: S.216 - Spokane Tribe of Indians of the Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act - #TribalSettlement

S.50, the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act, also made it across the finish line last month. The new law authorizes the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assess sanitation and safety conditions at treaty sites along the Columbia River and paves the way for the U.S. to make improvements at those sites in Washington and Oregon.

Indianz.Com Video: S.50 - Columbia River In-Lieu & Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act - #HonorTheTreaties

"We owe better to the tribal communities in the Northwest, and the very least we can do is uphold our commitments to tribes and ensure basic sanitation and safety," said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), the sponsor of S.50, of which Cantwell was a co-sponsor.

The three additional Indian Country items all happened to have been included in S.1790, the National Defense Authorization Act. Deep within the 3,488-page package were provisions to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Montana, and to place lands in trust for the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, both based in California.

Each measure had been considered independently by the House and the Senate over the last few years but all picked up steam in the current session before being included in the defense spending bill, which is considered "must pass" legislation due to its overall subject matter. The tribal provisions benefited from bipartisan support as well.

But as 2019 was drawing to a close, it took one of Donald Trump's tweets for the general public to notice. "Thank YOU Indian Country for being such an IMPORTANT part of the American story!" the president wrote on December 29 in a post that drew more than 102,000 likes and nearly 22,000 retweets.

Though "Indian Country" familiar to just about every tribal citizen and to followers of Indian policy, many on social media took issue with it. Some drew attention to the military connotations of the term, a connection notable in light of the U.S. government's history of massacres, removals and other genocidal acts carried out by armed forces.

Others also wondered what took Trump so long -- the post marked the first time in nearly three years of his presidency that he talked about his role in advancing Indian Country's legislative agenda. In a thread on the social media platform, he specifically mentioned the Native languages bill, the compensation bill and federal recognition for the Little Shell Tribe.

"Until you refrain from using 'Pocahontas' as a divisive racial slur, you don’t get to use 'Indian Country' as a gratuitous olive branch," wrote one Lakota user with a large following.

Amid the debate, the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal advocacy organization, took the opportunity to explain why it's acceptable to use "Indian Country" and to educate the general public about the significance of the unique legal and political relationship between tribes and Indigenous nations, a relationship that's written in the U.S. Constitution itself.

"Signing these bills into law, the President affirmatively acknowledges the existing government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal nations, and the responsibility Congress and the Administration both have in ensuring the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives across the county are improved,” said Kevin Allis, a citizen the Forest County Potawatomi Community who serves as NCAI's Chief Executive Officer.

“We only ask for what has been promised to us in Indian Country, through treaties and past legislation, and the President’s actions recognize the debt owed to the first peoples of this country,” Allis said.

Indianz.Com Video: Little Shell Tribe Federal Recognition

The Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, whose federal recognition efforts go back more than a century, will be celebrating its federal recognition on January 25. Politicians and members of Congress, representing Democratic and Republican parties, are going to join Chairman Gerald Gray in Great Falls, Montana, for a pipe ceremony, powwow dancing and more.

"I am beyond overjoyed that we are finally at this place that so many of our ancestors, family members, and friends have fought to achieve," Gray said on social media after the defense bill was signed into law on December 20. "We have restored the dignity and respect that the Little Shell Tribe deserves."

H.R.297 and S.51 were the House and Senate versions, respectively, of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act. The tribe's push for legislative recognition goes back more than a decade, following an equally long fight through the federal acknowledgement process at the BIA.

The celebration date, location and time has been confirmed. Hope to see you there. Also there will be a pipe ceremony on Jan. 25th at 1:00pm at the LS event center... hope to see you there also.

Posted by Montana Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians on Monday, January 6, 2020

A small measure of justice is also coming to the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians thanks to the inclusion of H.R.1388, the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act, in the defense package. The new law places about 511 acres in California in trust for the tribe, whose federal status was terminated by Congress in 1961, leaving its citizens without a home base.

Ironically, the sponsor of H.R.1388 ended up voting against national defense bill. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) said the larger package included too many "bad provisions" that he attributed to Republican lawmakers and to the White House.

H.R.317, the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Land Affirmation Act, also made it into the defense measure. The bill places about 1,400 acres in California in trust for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, land that will be used for housing, governmental and other purposes.

House Committee on Natural Resource Notice
Full Committee Markup (January 15, 2020)

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