Indianz.Com Video: ‘Our shared federal trust and treaty obligations demand nothing less’: Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs meets under new leadership
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Indianz.Com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Indian Country will be seeing major change on Capitol Hill as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs meets for the first time in the 117th Congress.

The committee is holding an organizational meeting on Thursday morning. The legislative panel’s first order of business is the formal selection of a chair and vice chair.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) is the new chairman of the committee. He is the third lawmaker from Hawaii in the role, following in the footsteps of the legendary former Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) and the late Sen. Daniel Akaka (D).

“We all need to work together and support Native families and communities across the nation,” Schatz said during a speech on the U.S. Senate floor last Wednesday.

“I think about the history of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and I think of my two predecessors, Senator Daniel K. Inouye and Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka, and the legacies that they built of bipartisanship,” Schatz said as he took note of the tradition he is carrying on for Hawaii, the 50th state.

brianschatz
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

In taking the gavel for the committee, Schatz will be inheriting another tradition in American politics. Joining him as vice chair on Thursday morning will be Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a longtime member of the panel from the 49th state.

Hawaii and Alaska were the last two states to join the union. Their Congressional delegations have long cooperated on shared issues of concern — especially those affecting Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives.

But the 117th Congress marks the first time that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will be led by lawmakers from Hawaii and Alaska. This will be Murkowski’s second stint as vice chair — she was the first woman and the first Alaskan in the role, more than a decade ago.

“Alaska and Hawaii have had a long, successful history of working together,” Schatz reminded the Alaska Federation of Natives during the organization’s annual convention last fall.

lisamurkowski
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Indian Country will be paying close attention to see how that cooperative relationship plays out in the current legislative session. Already, Schatz has taken the lead in supporting President Joe Biden’s so-called American Rescue Plan, which he says will bring more than $28 billion in COVID-19 relief and other federal resources to American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians.

But the costly plan — the overall price tag is $1.9 trillion — has not won any support from Republicans. Murkowski, in fact, voted against a budget resolution that would help implement Biden’s proposal. Every Republican in the Senate voted against passage of S.Con.Res.5 too.

The roll call reflected the unusual makeup of the Senate, with the chamber split evenly between the parties: 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. That left Vice President Kamala Harris, in her role as president of the Senate, to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the budget resolution.

The 50-50 split carries down to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. For the first time in recent memory, neither party has the majority of members on the panel.

Historically that has not been much of an issue. The committee rarely takes roll call votes on legislation, due to the bipartisanship that has characterized much of its its work since the late 1970s, at the dawn of the self-determination era.

But when contentious issues are brought up, such as a measure to recognize tribal sovereignty over labor unions or efforts to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Democrats and Republicans find themselves on opposite sides, clashing instead of cooperating. Tribal interests usually get sidelined in these situations, even greater so when the partisan disputes engulf the entire Senate, as has been case with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

For his part, Schatz has been reaching out to Republicans in hopes of getting them on board with COVID-19 relief for Indian Country. The goal, he said, is to “figure out how to make sure that the people who are suffering the worst during this pandemic get the help they need and deserve, and that is something we can come back together on as we move forward on this legislation.”

Indianz.Com Video: ‘Critical funding’ for Indian Country: Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico)

A year into the pandemic, American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to suffer at disproportionate rates. According to President Biden’s COVID-19 Equity Task Force, Native people are 3.6 times more likely to be hospitalized and 3.2 times more likely to be hospitalized than their White counterparts.

The task force on Wednesday gained its first Native member in Victor Joseph, the chair of the Alaska-based Tanana Chiefs Conference. The group will hold a virtual meeting, which is open to the public, on February 26.

For the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, members will also be adopting rules for the 117th Congress. A funding resolution is on the agenda as well.

On the Democratic side, the committee consists of six members:

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Chair
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Former Chair
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), Former Chair and Former Vice Chair
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada)
Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minnesota)
Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico), New member of panel

“Our Native American brothers and sisters on tribal lands are four times more likely to contract COVID-19 and twice as likely to die from it,” Luján noted during a speech on the Senate floor last Wednesday.

Luján is a new member of the chamber, having won election last November. In serving on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he continues a tradition of representation from New Mexico that includes former Sen. Tom Udall (D), who was the vice chair of the panel during the last session of Congress.

Indianz.Com Video: ‘Tribes are hurting’: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada)

On the Republican side, the committee consists of six members:

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Vice Chair, Former Vice Chair
Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), Former Chair, 116th Congress
Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma)
Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana)
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota), New member of panel
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas)

Notably, no one from the Northeast or the Southeast serves on the committee, though there has been representation from North Carolina in the past. No one from California, which is home to the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives and more than 100 tribes, is on the panel either.

The organizational meeting takes place at 11am Eastern, 6am Hawaii time. The early call time is necessary since the Senate is holding an impeachment trial for Donald Trump, the Republican former president accused of incitement of insurrection in connection with the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6.

The meeting will be livestreamed on indian.senate.gov.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Organizational Business Meeting (February 11, 2021)