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United Indian Nations of Oklahoma: Defending Tribal Sovereignty
Defense spending bill again a topic of hot interest in Indian Country
Tuesday, December 6, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — All eyes are on Capitol Hill as tribal leaders — and the rest of the nation — await the arrival of a highly-anticipated defense spending bill.

Indian Country isn’t normally interested in the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill, more commonly known as the NDAA, funds the U.S. military and related operations, usually to the tune of billions and billions of dollars.

But tribal leaders are paying close attention to the NDAA as the 117th Congress enters its final stretch. They are worried about the inclusion of provisions that would extend federal recognition to groups that they claim don’t meet the standards for a government-to-government relationship with the U.S.

“Tribal nations are going to see sovereignty reduced to ash if you have groups that claim to be the same as a sovereign,” said Chief Ben Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe.

The Shawnees are among more than 140 Indian nations that are opposing the inclusion of tribal recognition provisions in the NDAA for fiscal year 2023. The broad coalition, which includes representation from every region of the United States, says the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, as well as the Lumbee Tribe, should not gain federal status through an act of Congress, much less one focused on military spending.

“United Indian Nations is opposing MOWA and Lumbee for one simple reason: They want to bypass the process,” said Margo Gray, a citizen of the Osage Nation who serves as Chairwoman of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, which represents 39 tribes in the state once known as Indian Territory.

Margo Gray
Margo Gray, Chairwoman of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma, addresses a gathering of tribal leaders in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2022. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The NDAA has become of growing interest in Indian Country — and not always for positive reasons. One prior version of the bill authorized a highly controversial land swap that paved the way for a huge copper mine on a sacred Apache site in Arizona. Nearly a decade later, the contentious battle is still being fought in Congress and in the court system.

More recently, though, some tribes have turned to the NDAA to get more beneficial provisions across the finish line in an otherwise partisan Congress. The bill is considered must-pass, meaning that lawmakers of both parties will vote to approve the massive spending package, even if certain provisions have nothing to do with national defense.

Just last year, for instance, the Catawba Nation secured provisions that reaffirmed the legality of a long-awaited casino in North Carolina. And barely three years ago, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, based in Montana, finally secured federal recognition through the NDAA after running into roadblocks at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Lumbee Tribe, based in North Carolina, has made no secret of its push to gain federal status through the NDAA. Speculation first surfaced a year ago this month but no recognition provisions were included even as their Catawba neighbors were able to get their land bill signed into law as part of the defense package.

More recently, Lumbee Chairman John Lowery, who took office in January, has confirmed that the tribe tried to secure federal recognition through a funding bill that was signed into law earlier this year. But that too was unsuccessful, marking another setback in a century-plus long effort to gain acknowledgment of a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

“The fact our ancestors began this journey in 1888, to receive education services for our youth, only fuels my fire to push forward and to keep an eye open toward other avenues of action as well,” Lowery said in his March 2022 update to the tribe.

The effort on behalf of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, on the other hand, is newer. The Alabama-based group was previously denied recognition through the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment, with the 1999 final decision pointing out that there was “no evidence” showing that the petitioners have any Choctaw — or any Indian — ancestry.

“Rather, the evidence tended to disprove Indian ancestry,” the top legal official at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the BIA, wrote at the time.

But tribal leaders and their advocates note that the MOWA Band has the strong backing of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who is retiring at the end of the 117th Congress. They believe he is working strongly for the group’s inclusion in the NDAA to help bolster his legacy after more than 30 years in office.

“The MOWA Band has been recognized as a tribal community by various government agencies and entities for several decades, including the state of Alabama in 1979,” Shelby told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on March 23, when the legislative panel took testimony on S.3443, the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians Recognition Act.

Similarly, the committee has taken testimony on S.1364, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina Recognition Act. The bill boasts the support of another prominent voice — President Joe Biden and his administration.

“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,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a political appointee at the Department of the Interior, said in support of S.1354 at a hearing on November 17, 2021.

“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 added. “The one constant, however, has been that the Lumbee have been known as Indians, namely the Indians of Robeson County.”

S.1354 is sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), a former member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Like Shelby, he too is retiring at the end of the current session of Congress.

Still, neither S.1354, nor S.3443, have advanced very far in the U.S. Senate. Neither bill has been approved by the Indian Affairs committee even though Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the chair of the legislative panel, said he intended to use his leadership position to move the Lumbee recognition measure forward.

Meanwhile, the NDAA itself is mired in other partisan disputes that have little to do with Indian Country. Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a last-minute battle over what goes into the package, which typically runs thousands of pages in length.

“Bill text for the NDAA package is not ready yet,” Rep. James McGovern (D-Massachusetts) said on Monday afternoon — an odd statement to make considering that he had already announced and scheduled a meeting of the House Committee on Rules, which he chairs, to consider a piece of legislation that is not yet available.

House Committee on Rules: Meeting on HR 3648, HR 7946, Sen. Amendment to HR 8404 & Sen. Amendment to HR 7776 – December 6, 2022

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) wondered about the missing bill. “Mr. Chairman, can I just ask — you said in your opening remarks that we are going to be considering the NDAA?” he inquired about an hour into the scheduled meeting.

“We are not,” McGovern responded.

Burgess then asked if lawmakers will be given ample time — 72 hours — to read and consider the NDAA before it comes to a vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. McGovern declined to make any promises.

“We will work something out with you,” McGovern said. “I’m not going to give you an iron-clad commitment on that, but when the text is available, we will give you the information.”

The 117th Congress concludes at the end of December so time is running out for the legislative arm of the U.S. government to take final action on the NDAA and other bills. For Democrats in the House, these final days will be their last as leaders, with their party having lost the majority of seats in the chamber during the November 2022 mid-term elections.

The Senate, though, will remain under Democratic control in the 118th Congress. The party will control at least 50 seats, with the fate of the 51st seat being decided by a run-off election in Georgia on Tuesday.

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