Congress returns to work and takes action on tribal measures

Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation CEO Dan Winkleman, left, helps board member Joshua Cleveland sign a beam for the new Phillips Ayagnirvik Treatment Center under construction in Bethel, Alaska, on June 17, 2015. The center was nearly complete when it was destroyed by fire last October. A $20,000 reward is being offered for information about the incient. Photo from Facebook

A series of bills that benefit tribes and Alaska Natives took some big steps forward on Capitol Hill last week.

Congress finalized action on S.230, a bill to transfer federal land to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Alaska, and S.501, the New Mexico Navajo Water Settlement Technical Corrections Act, on September 16. Both measures are ready to signed by President Barack Obama.

That same day, the House approved H.R.2791, the Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act, H.R.487, a bill to allow the Miami Nation of Oklahoma to lease or transfer certain lands. Both packages await further consideration in the Senate.

The headquarters of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation in Bethel, Alaska. Photo from Facebook

S.230 was introduced on January 21. The bill requires the Indian Health Service to convey the 23-acre site of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Regional Hospital and other facilities in Bethel, Alaska, to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.

Congressional action is required because the IHS wasn't able to dispose of the land under existing laws governing surplus property. The transfer paves the way for a $250 million renovation and expansion of the campus.

“This land transfer brings YKHC one step closer to building a new primary care clinic and renovating our existing hospital, which will improve the quality, reliability and access to health care for the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta," CEO and President Dan Winkelman said in a press release.

“This land transfer is critical for the future of the people in the region and their growth. Not only is this important for the health of the people who live there, but it’s also an opportunity to create jobs in the community.” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in a press release.

“This widely supported legislation will assist countless Alaska Natives in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region by allowing YKHC to significantly grow their operations and expand their facilities,” added Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

The Obama administration testified in support of H.R.521, the House version of the bill, on April 14. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.230 at a business meeting on February 23 but did not hold a hearing on the bill.

From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, examine conditions on the San Juan River on August 11, 2015. Photo from Facebook

S.501 was introduced on February 12. The bill makes minor changes to a water rights settlement between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico by increasing the share of funding for cultural and archaeological resource protection while decreasing the share for fish and wildlife programs.

Congress originally approved the water settlement through the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. It resolves the tribe's claims to the San Juan River and authorizes the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project to serve reservation and off-reservation communities.

"The Begaye-Nez administration is committed to improving the Navajo Nation’s access to water, which is essential for the economic and job growth in the Navajo Nation," the tribe said in testimony on H.R.1406, an identical version of the bill, in June. "We have a saying, tó bee iiná. Water is life; water helps us live. We are ready to take proactive steps to ensure we adhere to this ideal."

The San Juan River has been in the news lately because it was polluted by the spill at the abandoned Gold King Mine in neighboring Colorado. Tribal officials testified at three hearings on the subject in the last two weeks and expressed their unhappiness with the way the Environmental Protection Agency has handled the disaster.

A scene from the Siletz Tribes powwow. Photo from Siletz Tribal Energy Program / Facebook

H.R.2791 was introduced on June 16. The package includes provisions to address land-into-trust and land management issues for the Coquille Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

The House Natural Resources Committee did not hold a hearing on the bill. A similar version passed the House during the last session of Congress but did not clear the Senate in time.

"The Western Oregon Tribal Fairness Act is a bipartisan, no-cost, commonsense bill that will go a long way toward helping resolve some of the problems Federal Government and its haphazard policy shifts have created for three western Oregon tribes," Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) said on the House floor last week.

Leaders of the Miami Nation of Oklahoma, from left: First Councilperson Donya Williams, Second Councilperson Scott Willard, Chief Doug Lankford, Secretary-Treasurer Sarah Lawson and Second Chief Dustin Olds. Photo from Miami Nation

H.R.487 was introduced on January 22. The bill allows the Miami Nation of Oklahoma to lease or transfer certain lands.

Congressional action is needed because the Non-Intercourse Act prevents tribes from leasing or conveying land they own without federal approval. Chief Douglas Lankford told lawmakers at a hearing on June 10 that the bill would relieve his tribe from the “crippling” restrictions of one of the oldest laws on the books.

"The Indian Non-Intercourse Act is old and out of date but the Supreme Court confirmed it is still in effect," said Lankford, who called the law a "handicap to self determination."

Similar bills have been passed for other tribes, subcommittee staff noted in a hearing memo. The most recent one was for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota, which President Obama signed into law in March 2014.

The tribe has already seen success during the current legislative cycle. Congress. Obama signed H.R.533 into law on July 6 to revoke the tribe's outdated and unused Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act charter.

Chief Little Shell was a leader of the Little Shell Tribe in the late 1800s. Photo from Turtle Mountain Chippewa Heritage Center

Three additional tribal bills have been reported to the Senate for consideration. They include S.35 to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Montana, and S.465, a bill to extend federal recognition six Virginia tribes.

Although there is no guarantee either bill will see further action, the chances for passage appear to be slim. Congress hasn't passed a standalone federal recognition bill since the mid-1990s.

Two tribes were able to gain legislative recognition in 2000 as part of an omnibus Indian package that passed in the final days of the 106th Congress and was signed in the final days of the Clinton presidency.

A third bill that was reported to the Senate, S.248, the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, stands a stronger chance. It exempts tribes and their businesses from the National Labor Relations Act and prohibits the National Labor Relations Board from asserting jurisdiction in Indian Country.

A companion version, H.R.511, has been placed on the calendar in the House so both bills could see action in the coming weeks. Republicans are leading the charge but some key Democrats have voiced support despite criticism from labor unions.

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