Lawmakers take action on Native youth and Indian Country bills

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), third from right, with youth from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in June 2014. Photo from Twitter

A series of Indian Country bills cleared the Senate on Thursday as lawmakers head into an extended break before the November election.

One bill -- S.246, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act -- is now on its way to President Barack Obama. The measure establishes a panel that will study ways to improve health, education and other outcomes for American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian youth.

"Across Indian Country in North Dakota, I've met or know many of these children. I’ve seen the dilapidated schools they learn in, and the overcrowded homes they sleep in. I’ve seen firsthand the obstacles they face that most of us can’t even imagine," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), the sponsor of S.246, wrote on Facebook on Thursday.

"But what I’ve also seen is the yearning of hope in their eyes, the desire to carry on their traditions and culture, and the hope that there is something more for them," she added. "My bill aims to address the complex challenges Native youth face and give them hope in a better future."

The Senate passed S.246 in June 2015 and it cleared the House on September 12. But the House version was modified slightly -- it no longer authorizes $2 million for the commission's work -- so it had to be brought up again in the Senate before it was considered finished for business.

“This commission on Native children is intended to make government programs more efficient and effective for children in tribal communities,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release on Thursday. “This bill was one of the first passed by the committee this Congress. I urge the president to sign it into law so that we can better meet the needs of Native children.”

Another bill is also ready to be sent to Obama. The Senate passed H.R.2733, the Nevada Native Nations Lands Act, to place land into trust for six Nevada tribes.

"Land is lifeblood to Native American Nations and plays an essential role in their economic prosperity and cultural identity. That is why I worked so hard to shepherd the Nevada Native Nations Land Act through both houses of Congress," Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), the Democratic leader in the Senate, said in a press release on Thursday.

The bill, which passed the House on June 7, benefits the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe and the Shoshone Paiute Tribes. All would see transfers of land currently managed by federal agencies.

A third bill is closer to becoming law but it needs further consideration before it can be sent to the White House. The Senate passed H.Con.Res.122, the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution, to condemn the sale, transfer and export of tribal property.

"Sacred tribal cultural items are essential to the history, cultures and traditions of Native American communities, and they deserve respect at all levels of government," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) said in a press release on Thursday. "This resolution will help to support efforts to stop the illegal theft and sale of tribal cultural items, which are essential to maintaining the Native American way of life."

The House passed H.Con.Res.122 on September 21 but it was amended by the Senate to include the text of S.Con.Res.49. The versions are slightly different so it will have to be sent back to the House before it can advance further.

“The Senate has taken bipartisan action to help tribes protect Native cultural and traditional items from being exported and sold overseas,” Barrasso said. “Tribes have the sovereign right to safeguard these items from foreign export and to keep them where they belong, in their respective tribal communities.”

Separately, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) continues to push for passage of S.3127, the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act). The bill increases penalties for people who traffic in tribal property.

"I am intent on holding hearings on the bill and continuing to build momentum towards passing it into law," Heinrich said on a conference call on Tuesday.

The fourth and final Indian Country bill passed by the Senate on Thursday is S.2959. The measure amends the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act of 2010 and allows the White Mountain Apache Tribe to complete the Miner Flat Dam, a critical drinking water project, in Arizona.

"As the White Mountain Apache Tribe continues to face a dire water crisis – with groundwater wells on the reservation having dropped by 50 percent and segments of the White River on the reservation expected to run dry by 2020 – completion of the Miner Flat Dam and Reservoir is critical to safeguard the tribe’s future water supplies," Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the sponsor of the bill, said in a press release.

A companion bill, H.R.5433, has not yet been given a hearing in the House. The sponsor is Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona), who happens to be running against McCain in the November election.

All four bills cleared the Senate on Thursday afternoon by unanimous consent, a process typically used for non-controversial measures.

Both the House and the Senate are now in recess until November 14.

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