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The U.S. Capitol. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
Indian Country bills crawl to final approval in busy election cycle
Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A slew of Indian Country bills are finally over their last hurdle on Capitol Hill, giving Republicans, Democrats and maybe even Donald Trump a chance to declare victory ahead of the presidential election.

With the action on Monday, lawmakers from both parties quickly took credit after the U.S. House of Representatives passed five tribal measures. Each bill cleared by the Democratic-controlled chamber under a suspension of the rules, meaning they enjoyed overwhelming support from both parties, despite a divided political climate.

And since all five already passed the U.S. Senate, which is in Republican hands, all that’s needed is the president’s signature. Assuming that happens, they will be the first standalone Indian Country measures to become law since last December.

Yes, that’s right. It’s taken almost a year for lawmakers to get five more pieces of seemingly simple and straightforward pro-tribal legislation — all of which had bipartisan backing — over the finish line in the 116th Congress, whose work has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, much in the same way tribal communities have been disrupted by the ongoing health crisis.

But in the case of S.209, the Practical Reforms and Other Goals To Reinforce the Effectiveness of Self-Governance and Self-Determination (PROGRESS) for Indian Tribes Act, the wait for approval has been an incredibly slow-moving one. The bill fulfills long-standing requests to update the self-governance programs that hundreds of tribes have used to exercise greater control over their own futures.

“Versions of this bipartisan bill have lain before this House and the Senate for nearly two decades, passing each body several times,” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) observed as she led debate on the House floor on Monday. “It is time to finally push this legislation across the finish line so that tribes can finally move to effectively-managed programs for their people.”

Yet one Republican couldn’t resist making a final jab at S.209, which was sent over by the Senate with strong support from the GOP. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming) said the PROGRESS Act “doesn’t quite get there,” citing concerns about water projects that could come under tribal control.

But even though Cheney urged colleagues to reject the bill, her protests were largely symbolic. The House passed S.209 without any formal objections and without a request for a recorded vote from anyone in the chamber.

Indianz.Com Video: PROGRESS Act | PROGRESS for Indian Tribes Act | 116th Congress

“After over 15 years of effort, tribes are delighted with the passage of the PROGRESS Act,” said Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe.

“This bipartisan legislation underscores Congress’ continuing commitment to the fundamental principles of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act: that tribes across America are self-governing and self-reliant and that they are best situated to decide what types of services and how they are provided to Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Allen, who also serves as chair of the Self-Governance Communication and Education Tribal Consortium.

Cheney didn’t object when another Senate-approved bill came up for consideration in the House. S.294, the Native American Business Incubators Program Act, aims to boost entrepreneurship and economic development in Indian Country, where unique legal and policy challenges, along with limited infrastructure, hinder growth.

“Enactment of S.294 will enhance Indian Country’s ability to become more self-reliant by giving Native entrepreneurs the tools they need to develop their businesses and create jobs in reservation communities,” said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and one of the first two Native women in Congress.

“By offering services that range from workplace enhancement, comprehensive skills training, and networking assistance, business incubators have been a reliable and consistent solution to many of the challenges startup businesses face around the country and to many of the challenges that continue to plague Indian Country,” added Cheney.

Indianz.Com Video: S.294 | Native American Business Incubators Program Act | 116th Congress

And just like the PROGRESS Act, another Indian Country measure that cleared its final hurdle on Monday was a long time in the making — over 150 years, in fact. S.832 nullifies a “supplemental treaty” that some citizens of the Warm Springs Tribes were forced to sign way back in 1865 amid pressure from non-Indian settlers in Oregon.

“Both the Indians of the Warm Springs Reservation and the United States Government recognized that this was a deceptive action and have consistently ignored the 1865 agreement while also reaffirming the tribes’ off-reservation treaty rights,” Haaland said, citing a valid government-to-governmnet signed 10 years prior. “Passage of S. 832 will finally officially correct this historic injustice and nullify the 1865 treaty.”

An ongoing injustice, but one whose roots also reach back centuries, was addressed with the passage of two additional bills on Monday. While Haaland wasn’t around to preside over consideration of S.227, Savanna’s Act, and S.982, the Not Invisible Act, she recognized the historic nature of legislation aimed at the crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans, especially women and girls.

“Throughout history, the federal government has told Tribes and Native people how they should approach issues on their own lands without intentionally including their voices,” said Haaland. “Often, these one-sided solutions have fallen short or no real action was taken.”

“I am here today to tell you that photo ops and empty promises are no longer enough,” added Haaland in a comment that appeared to be directed at the Trump administration’s Operation Lady Justice, whose efforts have been derided by Native women leaders as woefully inadequate.

Indianz.Com Video: Savanna’s Act | S.227 | 116th Congress #MMIW

S.227 is named in honor of Savanna Greywind, a 22-year-old citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation who went missing in 2017. She was eight months pregnant at the time and was kidnapped and killed by a non-Indian couple, who discarded her body in a river in North Dakota.

“Tragically, Savanna was found dead eight days after she was reported missing,” Rep. Kevin Amstrong (R-North Dakota) said on the House floor on Monday. “Thankfully, her baby was found alive, despite being cut from Savanna’s womb.”

S.227 requires the federal government — for the first time — to account for the numbers of Indian people who disappear every year, often with no resolution to their cases. It also increases coordination among law enforcement agencies and improves tribal access to national databases in order to keep better track of loved ones who go missing or are victims of crimes.

“Savanna’s story brought to light the fact that the data regarding missing and murdered indigenous people, particularly women and girls, is scattered across various government databases, if it even exists at all,” said Armstrong, an original co-sponsor of H.R.2733, the House version of the measure.

“Savanna’s heartbreaking story, unfortunately, is not unique. A woman named Olivia Lone Bear disappeared from the Fort Berthold Reservation just a month later, in October of 2017,” Armstrong continued, citing a second case involving a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation who went missing and was found dead a year later. Her case remains unsolved.

“These are just two recent examples from my state,” Armstrong added. “There are hundreds more across the nation.”

Indianz.Com Video: S.982 | Not Invisible Act | 116th Congress #MMIW #MMIP #NotInvisible

S.982, the Not Invisible Act, further builds upon the movement by requiring the federal government to work with survivors of trafficking and family members of those who have gone missing or murdered. The bill bears the distinction of being the first in history to be introduced and passed by the four tribal citizens who serve in the House.

“Including survivors of crimes in Indian Country to help guide the efforts of law enforcement to find others is a great first step in rescuing missing indigenous women and children before it is too late,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Along with Haaland, he serves as co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.

“I’m extremely proud to have worked with my colleagues to help address the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women and girls, who experience violence at higher rates than any other female population in the country,” added Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation who made history with Haaland as being the first two Native women to win election to their chamber.

“The Not Invisible Act is an important step to protect women and children and improve law enforcement efforts to combat this crisis,” said Davids.

“The silent crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women is wreaking havoc on our families and our communities,” observed Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “Our priority must be to protect Native women and children and all parties have to work together to end this epidemic of violence.”

The flurry of activity in the House came after the Senate approved S.209, S.294 and S.832 over a year ago, in June 2019, while S.227 and S.982 gained passage in March. All five were steered through Congress by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“We appreciate the House of Representatives for passing five Indian bills, including my PROGRESS for Indian Tribes Act and Savanna’s Act, a bill that I have strongly supported since introduction,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the legislative panel. “The efforts of my House colleagues is appreciated and we anticipate that more of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee bills will move onto the President’s desk to be signed into law by the end of the year.”

“As Indian Country continues to grapple with the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, these bills will serve to empower tribal governments and economies, tackle the MMIW crisis, and uphold the nation’s trust and treaty responsibility to Tribal communities,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee. “I look forward to seeing these important bills signed into law, and I am encouraged that both chambers of Congress continue to work across the aisle on priorities for tribes and Native communities.”

As with most Indian Country matters, President Trump and his administration have largely been silent on the bills that are now being sent to the White House. In reports accompanying each of the five measures, the Senate committee noted that it received “no communications from the Executive Branch” regarding the legislation.

The 116th Congress began in January 2019 in a new, divided era of government. Democrats, with the help of newcomers like Haaland and Davids, took control of the House. Republicans, meanwhile, maintained their hold on the Senate.

The results haven’t exactly been stellar for tribes and their citizens. Since the start of the session, lawmakers have sent just three stand-alone Indian Country bills to Trump, who signed all three into law back in December 2019:

Separately, Trump in December 2019 signed a national defense bill that included provisions to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, headquartered in Montana. The package also restored homelands to the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, both in California.

Assuming Trump signs all five bills approved on Monday, the 116th Congress will have seen eleven substantive Indian Country measures become law. The session concludes in December, but with the election fast approaching, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for the list to grow.

Indian Country didn’t fare much better during the 115th Congress, when both the House and the Senate were in Republican control, and with a Republican in the White House. Only about a dozen stand-alone tribal bills became law during that session.

The Trump-era record stands in marked contrast to that of years past. Historically, about 20 Indian Country bills have become law during any particular session of Congress, regardless of which parties are in control of the House and the Senate, and regardless of the political persuasion of the president.
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