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Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approves eight bills at meeting

An aerial view of Cochiti Pueblo as seen from Cochiti Dam in New Mexico. Photo by Kristen Skopeck / U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved eight bills at a business meeting on Wednesday.

All of the bills were non-controversial. Four of them address Indian education, a top priority of committee members.

“Education is a vital role for advancing progress in all tribal communities," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee. "These bills would provide necessary tools for administrators and students to succeed."

The education bills are:
S.1928, the Native Educator Support and Training (NEST) Act. The bill extends an existing federal loan cancellation program to Native language immersion instructors. The committee held a hearing on November 18.
S.2304, the Tribal Early Childhood Education Act. The bill creates a demonstration project for tribes, tribal education institutions and tribal organizations to develop early childhood education programs. The committee held a hearing on April 6.
S.2468, the Safe Academic Facilities and Environments for Tribal Youth Act (SAFETY ACT). The bill requires the Bureau of Indian Education and the White House Office of Management and Budget to come up with a 10-year plan to bring Indian schools into "good" condition. The committee held a hearing on April 6.
S.2564, the Dine College Act. The bill authorizes funds for new construction at Diné College , a tribal college on the Navajo Nation. A hearing took place on April 13.

The committee also advanced a bill to address a major safety issue in Indian Country. S.2717, the Dam Repairs and Improvements for Tribes Act (DRIFT ACT), invests $655 million over 20 years to reduce a $556 million backlog in dam maintenance.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting

"This is a serious public safety issue, as many dam systems across Indian Country are in desperate need of repairs and maintenance,” said Barrasso. “The DRIFT Act will hold Washington accountable to maintain these dams, and will keep promises made to tribes."

Barrasso said he is working to identify "offsets" in the federal budget to "pay for" the DRIFT Act. The committee held a hearing on the bill on April 13.

Another bill establishes a $10 million grant program at the Department of Justice for special tribal courts. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the sponsor of S.2205, the Tribal Healing to Wellness Courts Act, said tribes are using their courts to rehabilitate substance abuse offenders while holding them accountable for their crimes.

"This bill makes more direct investments in these programs and supports tribes by providing them with alternative, culturally-informed pathways of dealing with the substance abuse issues that too often plague our Indian communities," said Tester, the vice chairman of committee, which took testimony on on April 13.

An aerial view of Diné College's center in Chinle, Arizona. Photo from Facebook

The committee also approved S.2421. The bill directs the Indian Health Service to convey certain properties to the Tanana Tribal Council and to the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, both in Alaska.

The Tanana Tribal Council plans to use land to develop a community wellness center while the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation will expand a dental clinic. Similar legislation was enacted for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation last October.

"This legislation will help increase access to much needed healthcare to Alaska Natives and non-natives in two rural regions of my state," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the sponsor of the bill. A hearing took place on April 13.

Finally, one bill was tribal specific. S.2643, the Pueblo de Cochiti Self-Governance Act, addresses a settlement between Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the operation of Cochiti Dam on the reservation.

The bill enables the tribe to use settlement funds for a deal that will lead to the return of ancestral and sacred land to the reservation. The committee took testimony on April 13.

"The bill is widely supported by the Department of the Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, the state of New Mexico and all the adjacent land owners," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the sponsor of the bill.

All eight bills can now be considered on the Senate floor.

Committee Notice :
Business Meeting (April 27, 2016)

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