Alaska Native veterans. Photo: Public Affairs Office Fort Wainwright

Bipartisan public lands bill includes provisions benefiting Indian Country

By Acee Agoyo

One Democrat called it "magnificent." A Republican was happy that lawmakers "finally got" something done for some of the first Americans.

Yes, in a rare sign of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, Congress gave final approval this week to a massive public lands package that includes a number of provisions benefiting Indian Country. The action was all the more impressive considering that lawmakers, on that very same day, were deeply divided in votes on President Donald Trump's border wall emergency and a judicial nominee deemed to be anti-Indian.

“Both chambers are now on record in strong support of this package of lands, water management, sportsmen, and conservation measures," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the sponsor of S.47, the Natural Resources Management Act. "It took us years of bipartisan, bicameral work to reach this point, and I am hopeful the president will sign it into law very soon.”

Though the 698-page bill moved quickly through the House and the Senate in the last two months, it indeed represents a significant amount of work. Some of the provisions, especially those affecting Alaska Natives, have been on the agenda for years.

"Been trying 15 years, and we finally got it done," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) in discussing one section benefiting Native veterans.

Colville Tribes Applauds Final Passage of Bill that Protects Methow (mətxʷu) Headwaters Nespelem, WA—The Chairman of...

Posted by Colville Council on Wednesday, February 27, 2019

But Native people in Alaska aren't the only ones cheering final passage of S.47. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are hailing provision that will protect the Methow Valley, one of their most important places in Washington.

“This act will provide protection of Methow, or mətxʷu, ancestral homelands and prevent development of large-scale mining that would desecrate our sacred sites, gathering areas, fish habitat and threaten the health of local communities,” Chairman Rodney Cawston said on Wednesday. “Our tribes and mətxʷu tribal members have long been involved in projects to restore and protect critical habitat, gathering places and sacred sites in the Methow with federal, state, and local partners."

"We are very pleased that protections will be in place for these very important lands and waters, all of which are within the traditional territories of the Confederated Tribes," Cawston added.

Further south, in Arizona, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe was another beneficiary of the Natural Resources Management Act. The bill, assuming it is signed into law by the president, will place 40 acres in Arizona in trust, completing an long-awaited acquisition that didn't quite make it over finish line in the last session of Congress.

Great meeting with Staff Director Mike Andrews of US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Pascua Yaqui continues to do...

Posted by Francisco Valencia on Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Over in Nevada, the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe also got assistance with its homelands. S.47 transfers about 132 acres of federal land adjacent to the reservation into trust, fulfilling a request that dates back to the Obama era.

And elsewhere in Indian Country, inclusion was the name of the game. A number of provisions in the bill ensure that tribes are at the table in regards to a wide range of land, natural resources and cultural management issues in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington.

"This forward-thinking legislation will ensure water security for our farmers, rivers, salmon, and communities for the foreseeable future," Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Washington), a new member of Congress, said in regards to a project that aims to improve the Yakima River Basin in Washington. "It allows tribes to make important infrastructure improvements, protects local salmon habitat, and, therefore, is also instrumental in saving our dwindling Puget Sound orcas."

Schrier also noted that the S.47 authorizes $75 million for Indian Country irrigation projects. The money is to be directed to, among others, tribes in the Pacific Northwest Region and to those whose systems were discussed in a Government Accountability Office report about long-overdue maintenance.

Great news! Tonight the House passed Senator Murkowski’s Lands Package, which includes a version of the Alaska Native...

Posted by Senator Dan Sullivan on Tuesday, February 26, 2019

With Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in charge of the package, Alaska and its Native residents are among those who stand to gain the most. After the bill passed the Senate on February 12 by a vote of 92 to 8, her office highlighted no less than 10 sections that were written with the state in mind.

One of the most significant is Alaska Native Veterans Land Allotment Equity Act. The measure, which has been debated for years, reopens the allotment process for Alaska Natives were denied opportunities to select lands because they were serving in the military at the time.

"My bill will allow many Alaska Natives who served in the military — or their descendants— during the Vietnam-era to apply for their Native land allotment after they missed their initial opportunity to do so because of their military service outside of Alaska during the Vietnam War," Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) wrote in a post on social media. "For decades, this special group of Alaska veterans have suffered an injustice."

Barrow Cam: Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation

Another Alaska-centric section benefits a Native entity with ties to the Trump administration. The bill requires the Department of the Interior to "convey all right, title, and interest in the sand and gravel resources within and contiguous to the Barrow Gas Field" to Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, according to Murkowski's office.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native to serve in the political-level post at Interior, owned shares in the corporation, according to her federal financial disclosure form. In an ethics letter vowed to transfer them to her children "within 90 days of confirmation" -- she was confirmed last June.

The transfer applies to sand and gravel resources underlying surface lands already owned by the corporation, the text of the bill states. Ukpeaġvik engages in a number of activities at the Barrow Gas Field.

The House passed S.47 by a vote of 362 to 92 on Tuesday. Three of the four tribal citizens who serve in the chamber supported it -- Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico).

The only holdouts on the bill were 92 Republicans. That group included Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma).

S.47 has not yet been presented to President Trump for his signature. According to press secretary at the Department of the Interior, the bill includes a number of initiatives supported by his administration.

No stand-alone Indian bills have cleared any chamber of Congress so far in the 116th Congress, which began in January. By this time in the 115th session, Trump had signed a bill to extend federal recognition to the tribes whose ancestors welcomed the first European settlers to Virginia some 400 years ago.

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