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Top GOP lawmaker takes aim at BIA's Washburn ahead of hearing

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) serves as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. Photo from Facebook

A top Republican is lashing out at the leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs ahead of a key hearing on a federal recognition bill.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced H.R.3764, the Tribal Recognition Act, last week. The bill strips the BIA of its ability to recognize tribes, asserting that Congress -- and only Congress -- can determine which groups are worthy of a government-to-government relationship.

While Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn has yet to offer the Obama administration's views on the bill, he's not likely to support it. And that appears to be the basis for Bishop's missive in the opinion pages of today's issue of The Wall Street Journal in which he accuses top officials at the BIA of making "multiple disrespectful comments" about his committee.

"In a recent interview, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn even accused the committee of 'statements and questioning that harkened back to the termination era,'" Bishop writes.

But Bishop doesn't explain why Washburn drew such a comparison. In two hearings this spring, Republicans on the committee openly doubted the legitimacy of dozens of federally recognized tribes and they described the General Allotment Act as a "humane" law even though it resulted in the loss of millions of acres of tribal homelands.

"It's on your conscience and it's on mine if this attack on Indian Country is allowed to succeed," Washburn said at a May 13 hearing. "I don't intend to stand idly by and let it happen on my watch and I ask the same of you."

Bishop, though, attempts to link Washburn's defense of Indian Country to the Obama administration's stance on an entirely different piece of legislation. The House passed H.R.538, the Native American Energy Act, on October 8 after the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a rare statement of administration policy against the bill.

"No longer can Congress be bullied into standing by as the Obama administration dictates tribal policy," Bishop writes. "The Native American Energy Act and the Tribal Recognition Acts should come to a vote and be signed into law, if not by this president then the next. "

Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn, right, with National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby at the organization's annual conference in San Diego, California, on October 19, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

But while tribal organizations like the National Congress of American Indians have expressed support for H.R.538, they are even more vocal about Washburn and his efforts on behalf of the Obama administration. During the organization's annual conference in San Diego, California, last week, attendees greeted the Assistant Secretary with rousing applause even before he started his speech.

NCAI President Brian Cladoosby, who won election to a second term by acclamation, stayed at the podium to explain the warm embrace -- it was Washburn's comments at those committee hearings and his willingness to take on lawmakers like Bishop.

"He really got drug through the mud and he got hammered pretty good and he stood up to that," Cladoosby said of Washburn, a member of the Chickasaw Nation.

"He let them know that he was an advocate for tribes and anything that they did against tribes, he was going to stand up for," Cladoosby continued.

"He stood up for us," Cladoosby said of Washburn.

Washburn is due to testify this afternoon on Bishop's bill. He is the only witness for the hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs at 2pm.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 3764 (October 28, 2015)

BIA Final Part 83 Documents:
Final Rule | Policy Guidance | Fact Sheet

Federal Register Notices:
Hearing Process Concerning Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (August 13, 2015)
Requests for Administrative Acknowledgment of Federal Indian Tribes (July 1, 2015)
Federal Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (July 1, 2015)
Hearing and Re-Petition Authorization Processes Concerning Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes (June 19, 2014)

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