Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testifies in support of a water rights settlement at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on December 6, 2017. Photo: Navajo Nation Washington Office

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs schedules meeting and hearing

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will be convening this week to consider pending legislation and broadband in tribal communities.

The business meeting on Wednesday focuses on two bills. One is S.664, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act of 2017.

The Republican-sponsored bill ratifies a water settlement between the Navajo Nation and the state of Utah. The deal ensures that the tribe will have access to the Colorado River.

"The enactment of the settlement would provide residential water and upgrade of living standards for Utah Navajo citizens," said Davis Filfred, who represents communities in Utah as a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council.

The Senate committee took testimony on the measure last December. The state of Utah supports the settlement but the Trump administration has not said whether it will agree to the $198.3 million cost of the deal.

The Chehalis Tribe jointly owns and operates the Great Wolf Lodge Resort on its homelands in Grand Mound, Washington. Photo: Jeff Sandquist

The second item on the agenda for the business meeting is H.R.5317, the Repeal of Prohibition on Certain Alcohol Manufacturing on Indian Lands Act. The bipartisan bill repeals an outdated ban on distilleries in Indian Country.

H.R.5317 passed the House on September 12. So action at the committee level puts it one step closer to passage in the Senate and possible enactment into law before the end of the year.

"The United States’ current policy is to support tribal self-determination and self-sufficiency," Chairman Harry Pickernell Sr. Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation said when the committee took up S.3060, a companion version of the bill, on July 18.

"The Chehalis Tribe and other tribes must provide for their members and support surrounding communities through economic development," Pickernell added. His tribe is planning to break ground on a distillery on its homelands in Washington if the bill becomes law.

The business meeting, which takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday, will be immediately followed by an oversight hearing. At issue are two new Government Accountability Office reports that focused on broadband internet service in Indian Country.

According to the first report, released to the public on September 7, the Federal Communications Commission has "overstated" the availability of high-speed internet on tribal lands. As a result, gaps in service may be even greater than known.

“Residents of tribal lands have lower levels of broadband Internet access relative to the U.S. as a whole, but the digital divide may be greater than currently thought," Sascha Meinrath, the director of the X-Lab technology policy center, said in a broadcast released by the Native American Finance Officers Association.

The second report was released on September 28. It calls on the federal government to do more to help tribes access funding for broadband projects in their communities.

According to the report, "less than 1 percent" of available funding for broadband infrastructure programs has gone to tribes between 2010 and 2017. Only 14 tribal entities received funding in those years, the GAO said.

The witness list for the hearing follows:
Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues
U.S. Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC

Chief of the Consumer & Government Affairs Bureau
Federal Communications Commission
Washington, DC

Chief Strategy Officer and General Counsel
Amerind Risk
Santa Ana Pueblo, NM

President, National Tribal Telecommunications Association
Mescalero, NM

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices
Business Meeting to Consider S. 664 & H.R. 5317 (October 3, 2018)
Oversight Hearing on "GAO Reports Relating to Broadband Internet Availability on Tribal Lands" (October 3, 2018)

Government Accountability Office Reports
BROADBAND INTERNET: FCC's Data Overstate Access on Tribal Lands (September 7, 2018)
TRIBAL BROADBAND: Few Partnerships Exist and the Rural Utilities Service Needs to Identify and Address Any Funding Barriers Tribes Face (September 28, 2018)

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