Indianz.Com > News > ‘Everything is pressing’: Indian Country funding mired in partisan stalemate
National Congress of American Indians: 2022 State of Indian Nations #SOIN #NCAIECWS2022
Indian Country funding mired in partisan stalemate
‘Everything is pressing’
Tuesday, March 8, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With funding for the federal government set to run out later this week, tribal leaders are closely watching the fast-moving developments on Capitol Hill.

In what has become a long-running pattern, Congress has failed to approve an appropriations bill for most federal agencies. That means funding levels for Indian Country’s most important programs at the Department of the Interior, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, remain at a stand-still amid rising costs and inflation.

“Tribal nations have become leading employers in our country,” President Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of Americans said in the annual State of Indian Nations address last month.

“The means we must keep fighting for full appropriations and especially for advance appropriations,” Sharp said, referring to ongoing efforts to insulate Indian Country programs from political impasses in the nation’s capital.

“This means that our trustee must get behind our vision for a healthy tribal economy,” she said, invoking the trust and treaty obligations of the United States to tribes and their citizens.

President Joe Biden and his administration have proposed funding increases for Indian Country programs throughout the federal government. But inaction within the legislative branch leaves the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service without the resources that advocates say are needed, in light of centuries of underfunding.

“We’ve seen that having our health systems being well-resourced and stable is so important,” Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said during NCAI’s executive council winter session last month.

“So advanced appropriations for IHS would allow greater planning for that,” Davids said, citing legislation that she and other members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, are championing.

“I have been pushing this for years and years and years, and unfortunately not been successful,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) said long-running efforts to implement advanced appropriations during NCAI’s meeting.

“And both parties — that’s the interesting thing,” said Young, who is the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “It’s not just one party. This is a congressional action [that] has to be taken together — by bipartisanship.”

Indianz.Com Video: Protecting Tribal Lands and Supporting Tribal Economies #NCAIECWS2022

With Congress unable to approve advanced appropriations for the IHS or other Indian programs, tribes and their advocates are anxiously waiting to see what happens before federal funding runs out on Friday. H.R.6617, the Further Additional Extending Government Funding Act, imposes the March 11 deadline that’s being closely watched in Indian Country.

Before that, lawmakers enacted H.R. 6119, the Further Extending Government Funding Act, which kept federal agencies up and running through February 18. And before that, there was H.R.5305, the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act, which ran through December 3, 2021.

According to key Democratic leaders, members of both parties in both chambers of Congress “reached agreement on a framework” last month to negotiate a forthcoming appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022. The February 9 statement came from Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), the chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

But negotiations have failed to produce a package ahead of the deadline on Friday. Despite the lack of a confirmed agreement, Democratic leaders in the House are prepared to vote on what is being called an “omnibus” funding bill as soon as Wednesday.

The omnibus appropriations bill would cover the BIA, the IHS and numerous other federal agencies that have yet to receive updated funding levels for fiscal year 2022, which officially began last October.

I’m speaking on the Senate floor

WATCH—I’m speaking on the Senate floor:

Posted by Senator Chuck Schumer on Monday, March 7, 2022
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York): Floor Remarks On The Need To Pass Bipartisan Emergency Aid Package For Ukraine In Omnibus Funding Legislation – March 7, 2022

Discussions are complicated by ongoing — and primarily partisan — disputes about the government’s role in addressing COVID-19. Even though American Indians and Alaska Natives have been disproportionately affected by infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus, funding is being being driven by debates about the pandemic going away, as mask mandates, vaccination requirements and other guidelines are being relaxed or removed altogether.

A new crisis also has arisen since the last funding extension. Russia’s war in Ukraine has led the Biden administration and Democrats to call for the inclusion of $12 billion in “emergency aid” in the forthcoming omnibus.

“The clearest signal Congress can send to Vladimir Putin this week is passing a bipartisan aid package, leaving no doubt that the democratic nations of the world stand with Ukraine and against Putin’s deeply immoral and bloody war,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the Senate Majority Leader, said in a floor speech on Monday.

A further complication has emerged with respect to Indian Country. As funding negotiations in Congress picked up last week, a number of prominent tribal leaders have been working feverishly behind the scenes to ensure that the upcoming appropriations package does not steer from its primary goal of meeting the U.S. government’s trust and treaty obligations.

Chatter on Capitol Hill about using the omnibus to extend federal recognition to the Lumbee Tribe, as well as three additional groups, has these particular leaders lobbying to keep the debate separate from the appropriations process. They are directing concerns to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which typically handles Indian policy matters in a non-partisan and cooperative fashion.

“Federal acknowledgment of Indian tribes is a solemn consideration of the United States,” a letter signed by nine tribal leaders on Friday read.

“Federally acknowledged tribes are sovereigns with significant governmental powers impacting both Indians and non-Indians, including the authority to tax, regulate activity within tribal territory, and take away personal freedoms through the exercise of criminal jurisdiction,” the letter continued. “Acknowledgment decisions should be made on merit and not politics.”

The March 4 letter cited four legislative recognition bills that have been introduced in the 117th Congress. Of the four, three would extend federal acknowledgment to tribes and petitioning groups from the Southeast, where a number of signatory tribes were removed during the genocidal Indian removal period of federal policy.

The Muscogee Nation pointed to the removal history in a letter of its own on Monday. Chief David Hill said that extending federal recognition to tribes and petitioning groups from his people’s ancestral homeland could undermine efforts to protect sacred sites and areas of importance to the historic Muscogee Confederacy.

“As a tribal nation that was historically removed from our ancestral homelands, the Muscogee Nation is familiar with the risks inherent in granting federal recognition to a tribe that is not who they claim to be,” Hill wrote in the letter to Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the legislative committee with jurisdiction over Indian issues.

“Although we have been forcibly removed from our homelands, we maintain a presence in the Southeast and we continue to fight to protect Mvskoke graves and sacred sites,” Hill continued. “And although federal law guarantees the rights of tribal nations to protect sacred sites and cultural patrimony, hasty political decisions granting a group of people federal recognition significantly undermine the rights of legitimate tribal nations to protect the most sacred of sacred.”

As leaders of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Schatz and Murkowski have emerged as key players in breaking through legislative stalemates in the Senate. They are helping push through a bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, as well as a bill to renew the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act. Both measures haven’t been renewed by Congress for nearly a decade, so tribes are rallying behind their efforts.

Lisa Murkowski and Brian Schatz
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), left, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) serve as vice chair and chair, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo: SCIA

But as negotiations over the omnibus continue, advocates are worried about some additional changes behind the scenes. According to two people who closely monitor Indian policy developments, Murkowski’s top staffer on the committee has been sidelined, just months after being named staff director and general counsel for the Republican side of the panel.

Kristi Nuna’q Williams, a citizen of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in who is of Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan descent, was the first Alaskan to serve in the top committee role, Murkowski announced last July.

Williams has since been replaced, on an interim basis, by Lucy Murfitt, a non-Native staffer who had joined the committee as chief counsel last September. An aide to Murkowski confirmed the changes to Indianz.Com on Tuesday.

“Lucy Murfitt is serving as Interim Minority Staff Director and maintaining her position of Chief Counsel,” the aide told Indianz.Com. “She has been the Minority’s Chief Counsel since last summer.”

“Kristi Williams is serving Senator Murkowski in another role as Director of Special Projects as she transitions back to Alaska,” the aide said of the Alaskan former staff director.

The debate over legislative recognition for tribes and petitioning groups, as well as the shift in staffing, have some worried about Indian Country’s portion of the forthcoming appropriations package. Although discussions are ongoing, some advocates aren’t convinced an agreement is going to be reached in time.

“I think they are still up in the air,” a third person who closely watches Indian law and policy developments said. “We’ll see if they need another extension.”

The same person said the omnibus negotiations can easily be characterized as a “train wreck” due to the competing priorities, from COVID to Ukraine. As a result, the advocate doesn’t believe the Indian Country portion will include controversial or polarizing provisions.

“Everything is pressing,” the person said in reference to the larger priorities guiding developments on Capitol Hill.

Aaron Payment
Aaron Payment serves as chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, headquartered in Michigan. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Three bills have been introduced in the 117th Congress to implement appropriations ahead of time for Indian programs. They follow:

  • S.2985, the Indian Programs Advance Appropriations Act of 2021
  • H.R.5549, the Indian Health Service Advance Appropriations Act
  • H.R.5567, the Indian Programs Advance Appropriations Act of 2021

Although the stand-alone bills have not yet gained movement on their own in the current legislative session, efforts to fund the IHS, the BIA and other Indian programs have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Tribal leaders have been pushing for approval for several years, painfully aware of the harms caused by government shutdowns on health, education and social programs in their communities.

“The treaty and trust obligation is prepaid and not partisan, so our funding and advanced appropriations should pass with broad bipartisan support,” said Aaron Payment, the chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a prominent advocate for Indian issues at the national level.

The four legislative bills referenced in the March 4 tribal leader letter to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs follow:

  • H.R.2758 and S.1364, the Lumbee Recognition Act
  • H.R.3649, the Mono Lake Kutzadikaa Tribe Recognition Act
  • H.R.5822, a bill to extend federal recognition to the Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe of South Carolina
  • S.3443, the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians Recognition Act

Of the four, only the bill for the Lumbee Tribe has gained traction in the 117th Congress. The House of Representatives approved H.R.2758 on November 1, on the first day of National Native American Heritage Month.

Indianz.Com Video: U.S. House of Representatives – H.R.2758 – Lumbee Recognition Act – November 1, 2021

The Lumbees are currently subject to a termination-era law that prohibits them from receiving federal services extended to other Indian nations. The 1956 statute identifies them as “Indians now residing in Robeson and adjoining counties of North Carolina.”

The signatories of the March 4 letter include several tribal nations that have long opposed federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe. But the Biden administration supports the legislative initiative.

“While the Lumbee have been recognized by the state of North Carolina since 1885, they have faced hurdles at the federal level with both legislation and the administrative process,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland of the Department of the Interior said in written testimony on S.1364 to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on November 17.

“This has been complicated by the complex history of the Lumbee — even the Department itself in the early 1930’s characterized the Lumbee with many different origins and names, including the Croatan Indians, Siouan Indians, Cherokee Indians, and Cheraw Indians,” Newland noted in the statement. “The one constant, however, has been that the Lumbee have been known as Indians, namely the Indians of Robeson County.”

indianz · Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Legislative Hearing on S.1364, H.R.1975, H.R.2088 & H.R.4881
Indianz.Com Audio: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on S.1364, H.R.1975, H.R.2088 & H.R.4881 – November 17, 2021

Harvey Godwin, Jr., who was then serving as chair of tribe, also testified at the hearing. The current Lumbee leader is John Lowery, who was sworn into office on January 6 and, like his predecessors, has made federal recognition a priority. His office did not return a request for comment about legislative discussions in Washington, D.C.

At the hearing for S.1364, Sen. Schatz, who promised to use his leadership position bring up the Lumbee recognition bill, acknowledged that extending federal recognition to any tribe or petitioning group is an action that “carries profound weight.”

Such actions “should not be undertaken lightly, or without the full consideration of this committee,” Schatz said.

Historically, Congress has avoided approving federal recognition bills. Only two have been enacted in recent years — the most recent in 2019 for the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Montana, and the prior in 2018 for six tribes in Virginia. Both measures passed only after years of consideration and action in prior legislative sessions — and only after Republicans agreed to sponsor the efforts.

Before 2018, the only legislative recognition bills that managed to pass both houses of Congress were enacted in the mid-1990s. An omnibus Indian package in 2000 restored recognition to two tribal nations that had previously been acknowledged by the United States.
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