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Panel approves Native Hawaiian, NAGPRA changes

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved the Native Hawaiian recognition act and a technical corrections bill that makes it easier for tribes reclaim ancient remains.

S.147, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, was approved by a voice vote with an amendment to clarifies that funding for a Native Hawaiian governing entity will not come from Indian programs. The change was requested by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), chairman of the committee, who has expressed doubts about the measure but agreed to bring it up for consideration.

"Federal funding for Indians is insufficient to cover existing beneficiaries and (the bill) could result in as many as 400,000 people being recognized as indigenous native people," he said.

Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) also said he had "concerns" about the legislation to extend the policy of self-governance to Native Hawaiians. But other members of the committee, including Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), came to voice their support.

"It would cost our nation very, very little to recognize these indigenous people," Smith said. "It's long overdue."

Senate Republicans have agreed to a floor vote later this spring on the measure. It has previously passed the House by wide margins. Gov Linda Lingle (R) also supports the bill.

In a separate action, the committee approved S.536, the Native American Omnibus Act by a voice vote. The bill contains dozens of changes to existing federal laws affecting tribes and individual Indians.

McCain, the sponsor of the bill, said he doesn't think any of its provisions are "controversial." But it resurrects a repatriation proposal that drew fire last year from scientists wishing to study the remains of the 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man.

The provision adds two words to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to make it easier to reclaim remains and artifacts not directly linked to present-day tribes. The change was suggested by tribal advocates who said a recent court decision guts NAGPRA.

Beyond repatriation, the bill makes a number of changes and corrections to existing law, including the recently passed Probate Reform Act. It contains 21 sections affecting economic development, law enforcement, criminal jurisdiction, land claims, leases, water rights, Indian arts and crafts, Native Hawaiians, education, self-governance, homeland security and health care.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), a member of the committee, and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), praised the passage of the provision that clarifies tribal, federal and state criminal jurisdiction on Pueblo lands in New Mexico.

"Our carefully crafted bill should eliminate any confusion as to who is responsible for fully prosecuting those who commit heinous crimes in these prosecution-free zones," Domenici said. A related bill is pending in the House.

Technical corrections bills usually become law without considerable debate but the practice has been under scrutiny in recent years as some critics accused retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) of inserting language without public debate.

Senate Bills:
S.147: Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act | S.536: Technical Corrections Act