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Indianz.Com Video: H.R.1964, Lumbee Recognition Act
Tribes await action on priorities as Congress returns to work
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Lawmakers are getting back to work after a long recess and a divisive election as time runs out to advance Indian Country’s legislative agenda.

Following an absence of nearly two months, the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives reconvened on Monday and quickly passed H.R.1964, the Lumbee Recognition Act. The bipartisan bill extends federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe, the largest Indian nation east of the Mississippi.

“My people have been praying patiently for a long time, and with today’s vote, the House of Representatives took a giant step toward our goal,” Chairman Harvey Godwin, Jr. said after the chamber passed H.R.1964 under a suspension of the rules, meaning no objections.

“I am pleased beyond words,” added Godwin, whose tribe has seen seeking federal recognition for more than a century

The ball kept rolling on Tuesday. As COVID-19 continues to impact Indian Country at disproportionate rates, the House passed the FEMA Assistance Relief Act, a measure that requires the federal government to pay for 100 percent of emergency costs incurred by tribes during the crisis.

“Tribal communities, including the Navajo Nation, have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19,” said Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona), a co-sponsor of H.R.8266. “As cases surge to record levels across the country, the federal government has a duty to leverage the full weight of its resources to help tribal communities battle this pandemic.”

Also securing passage on Tuesday was H.R.2610, the Fraud and Scam Reduction Act. The bill includes provisions to ensure tribes can protect their citizens from fraudulent activities, reports of which have risen dramatically during the health crisis.

“As Congress tackles the threat of scams that have sharply risen since the onset of the pandemic, I’m proud to have worked across the aisle to secure legislation to identify scams targeting Indian Country and to provide a roadmap for Congress to take additional action to end these fraudulent schemes,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), whose Protecting Indian Tribes from Scams Act, introduced as H.R.8127, was inserted into the larger bill.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, members of the U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands, have returned to work too. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs convened on Wednesday afternoon for the first time in nearly two months.

At a business meeting, lawmakers advanced four measures, bringing them on step closer to passage on the Senate floor. Committee members also touted the introduction of a symbolic resolution to recognize November as National Native American Heritage Month.

“From their distinguished service in the Armed forces, to their contributions as teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, and entrepreneurs, Native Americans continue to play a crucial role in the growth and success of the United States,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the legislative panel.

“During Native American Heritage Month, we celebrate the resilience, history and contributions of Native Americans in New Mexico and around the country,” added Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee. “This month is a call to reflect on the ways American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have shaped our society, and to recommit to upholding our trust and treaty obligations.”

But with November quickly coming to a close, time is running out for tribal nations to see progress on other bills of interest. The 116th Congress will be winding down next month, following yet another legislative cycle in which Indian Country’s priorities have fallen behind.

Historically, about 20 Indian Country bills are passed and signed into law during any particular session of Congress. That has been the case, no matter which parties are in control of the House and the Senate, and regardless of the political persuasion of the president.

The Donald Trump era has been different. During the 115th Congress, when Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and the White House for two years, only about a dozen stand-alone tribal bills became law.

In nearly every situation, the Trump administration sat silent or played little role in getting any of the bills across the finish line, according to a review of Congressional hearings, public records and other documents.

The 116 Congress, which began in January 2019 with Democrats taking over the House and Republicans maintaining leadership in the Senate, hasn’t been all that much better. So far, only 11 substantive Indian Country bills — eight stand-alone measures and three that were included in a non-related package — have been signed into law by Trump.

“We’re tired,” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said during a town hall hosted by the National Congress of American Indians last Thursday. “We need to have a federal government that is listening.”

But Haaland, who made history as one of the first two Native women to serve in the U.S. House, said lawmakers continue to work on Indian Country bills in a non-partisan fashion. She expects the tradition to continue when a record five tribal citizens, along with a Native Hawaiian, will become part of the 117th Congress early next year.

“We’ll have two new Native members joining us in the House,” Haaland noted.

Yvette Herrell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, won election to New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional district on November 3, making her only the third Native woman in history to secure such a victory. She is a Republican.

Kai Kahele also was victorious on election day, in Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional district. He is only the second Native Hawaiian in history to represent the state.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation who also participated in NCAI’s town hall, won re-election to a second term in the 3rd Congressional District in Kansas. Along with Haaland and Kahele, they will be the three Native Democrats in the House during the 117th session.

On the Republican side, Herrell will be joining two long-standing members. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation from Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation from Oklahoma’s 2nd, where about 17 percent of the population is Native.

“I look forward to continuing these efforts, to honor the federal trust responsibly to Native nations and to get more bill signed into law,” Haaland said during NCAI’s town hall.
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