Mark Kelly and Seth Damon
Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona), left, converses with Seth Damon, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, at council chambers in Window Rock, Arizona, on November 11, 2021. During a council session, Navajo lawmakers thanked Kelly for supporting the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. Photo: Navajo Nation Council
‘A clear message to sovereign nations’
Indian Country cheers passage of $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill
Friday, November 12, 2021
Indianz.Com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes billions of dollars in investments for Indian Country is finally over the finish line on Capitol Hill.

After months of wrangling, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act cleared its last hurdle in the 117th Congress last Friday. The bill, numbered H.R.3684, will be signed into law by President Joe Biden on Monday, the White House announced.

“As the effects of climate change continue to intensify, Indigenous communities are facing unique climate-related challenges that pose existential threats to tribal economies, infrastructure, livelihoods, and health,” Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, said in a news release.

“Coastal communities are facing flooding, erosion, permafrost subsidence, sea level rise, and storm surges, while inland communities are facing worsening drought and extreme heat,” added Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, an Indian nation based in New Mexico.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal’s historic investments in tribal communities will help bolster community resilience, replace aging infrastructure, and provide support needed for climate-related relocation and adaptation,” Haaland said in reference to the massive package, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as the U.S. Senate, with overwhelming Democratic and significant Republican support.

Historic portions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act include $2.5 billion for tribal water rights settlements, $2.9 billion for tribal transportation projects and $2 billion for tribal broadband initiatives. The Bureau of Indian Affairs alone will be seeing $736 million in funding.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal’s investments will directly support community led transitions for the most vulnerable tribal communities,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.

“More than $216 million will help tribes with climate adaptation, planning, ocean and coastal management, planning, and capacity building,” said Newland, a citizen and former president of the Bay Mills Indian Community, based in Michigan. “That money will also help directly fund relocation efforts, managed retreat and protected in-place planning.”

“The deal also makes historic investments in physical infrastructure in tribal communities,” added Newland, who was confirmed to his political post at the Department of the Interior in August. “It includes $250 million for construction, repair improvement, and maintenance of irrigation and power systems, dam safety, water sanitation, and other facilities on tribal lands. These investments will directly help tribes upgrade their aging infrastructure that is at risk of threatening the health and safety of their communities.”

indianz · Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Press Call – Department of the Interior – November 10, 2021
Indianz.Com Audio: Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Press Call – Department of the Interior – November 10, 2021

With H.R.3684 on the president’s desk, the Department of Transportation plans to work with tribal governments and Indian organizations to implement the bill’s provisions as effectively as possible, officials said this week. The package authorizes the creation of the Assistant Secretary for Tribal Affairs at the agency, elevating the issues of American Indians and Alaska Native to a higher level.

“We’re already rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on the immediate and longer term initiatives,” Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg said on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“We’ll be doing that work in concert with transportation stakeholders across the country — cities, states, tribal communities, transportation agencies, as well as private sector, philanthropic and advocacy groups,” said Trottenberg, whose department is led by Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a Cabinet member with direct experience in working closely with tribal government.

Overall, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal provides over $11 billing to Indian Country, according to a tally from the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative arm of the Navajo Nation. Tribal lawmakers are hailing provisions they say will improve basic needs on the largest reservation in the United States.

“People are hurting from rising gas prices and they are trying to feed their families — our veterans are most affected,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Raymond Smith, Jr. said on Thursday, as Veteran’s Day was observed across the country.

“The federal government must understand our local issues and work with us to solve problems like delapidating bridges and roads, the lack of clean water access, and bringing electricity into homes,” added Smith.

Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project
Delegates from the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative arm of the Navajo Nation, tour the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project in New Mexico on November 10, 2021. The project is a major infrastructure initiative that will bring water to communities on the New Mexico portion of the largest reservation in the United States. Photo: Navajo Nation Council

Navajo leaders are especially grateful for funding to implement a water rights settlement between the tribe and the state of Utah. They said they worked decades to secure adequate supplies from the Colorado River Basin.

“Indian Country will get over $11 billion in new infrastructure projects to begin construction on broadband internet lines, roadways, bridges, and water pipelines,” said Council Speaker Seth Damon. “The bipartisan infrastructure bill sends a clear message to sovereign nations around the country that we are a top priority.”

Following intense negotiations between the White House and key lawmakers from both parties, the Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act more than two months ago. The roll call for the bill was 69 to 30, with 19 Republicans joining all Democrats to support it on August 10. The 30 votes against the measure all came from Republicans.

The Senate negotiations resulted in the price tag of President Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, as proposed in March, being reduced to $1.2 trillion in the final package.

Passage of the new version of the bill was delayed in the House of Representatives as Democrats considered ways to secure approval of an even larger package known as Build Back Better Act that also includes historic investments for Indian Country. After the approach was abandoned, a final vote on H.R.3684 took place on November 5.

The roll call in the House was 228 to 206, with all but six Democrats voting in favor of the measure. The bill also gained support from 13 Republicans, including Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the Republican leader of the House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

“In conjunction with hard infrastructure, this bipartisan bill will fund projects of great importance to Alaska,” Young said of the bill, which the all-Republican Alaska delegation in Congress supported. “The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the need for fast and reliable broadband access. I welcome the bill’s investments in our state’s rural broadband connectivity, and I am confident that students, businesses, and families will benefit greatly from this broadband funding.”

“I am especially glad that our Alaska Native communities will receive needed support to bolster their own transportation programs,” said Young. “This is especially critical as they work to recover from the devastation caused by the pandemic.”

With Secretary Haaland at his side for a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Friday afternoon, President Biden said he looked forward to signing the bill into law on Monday. Haaland was just one seat away from the president at the meeting.

“The American people sent us here to deliver. The American people sent us here to make the government work,” Biden told reporters. “And they sent us here to make a difference in their lives. And I believe we’re doing that.”

The National Congress of American Indians has provided a detailed analysis of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and how it impacts American Indians, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiians. In addition to direct investments in Indian Country, NCAI said tribal governments will be eligible for $146.3 billion in federal grant programs.

“Tribal Nations and NCAI have long called for a comprehensive and transformational investment in infrastructure in Indian Country,” a summary of the package reads. “For decades, chronic underinvestment and an ever-growing backlog of critical infrastructure projects has negatively impacted the social, physical, and mental wellbeing of tribal and neighboring communities, hampering the ability of tribal Nations to fully leverage their economic potential and the ability of their citizens to fully participate in the American economy.”