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House Committee on Natural Resources: Full Committee Organizational Meeting – February 1, 2023
Republicans vow to use Indian Country committee to investigate Biden administration
Letter complains of ‘black box’ when it comes to tribal issues
Monday, January 30, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A key Congressional committee is finally getting to work this week, nearly a month after Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The House Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over Indian Country issues, will host an organizational meeting on Wednesday. It’s the legislative panel’s first meeting since the start of the 118th Congress on January 3.

But even though committee is under Republican leadership for the first time in five years, tribes and their advocates will see many familiar faces when they come to Capitol Hill to ensure the U.S. government fulfills its trust and treaty obligations. The new chairman is Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas), who has served on the panel since joining Congress a decade ago.

For the last two years, in fact, Westerman was the committee’s ranking member, or its senior-most Republican. Yet while he helped Democrats pass a number of bills benefitting Indian Country during the last session of Congress, he hasn’t mentioned tribes in his public statements over the last month.

“It’s an incredible honor to be elected as the leader of this committee, one that I’ve served on during my entire time in Congress,” Westerman said on January 10. “Natural resources are important to me as a forester, as an Arkansan and as an American citizen, and I’m eager to use our new majority to show the world that conservation is inherently conservative.”

Bruce Westerman
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas) is serving as the new chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources for the 118th Congress. Photo: House Committee on Natural Resources

A week later, Westerman welcomed seven Republicans who are new to the committee, where they will join 17 fellow GOPers who have been a part of the panel in prior sessions. Again, he did not address where his party stands on the issues most important to tribal nations and their people.

“I’ve already had conversations with many of our members about issues we’re going to tackle like western drought, wildfires, the Biden border crisis, government accountability, domestic energy and more,” the Republican chair said on January 17. “We’re ready to get started and implement real change for the American people.”

Still, a week after that, Indian Country got a good idea of what Westerman and his fellow Republicans intend to do now that they are in charge. On January 25, the committee told key Biden administration officials — including Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior — that they plan on using the committee to investigate the executive branch very closely.

According to the Republican lawmakers, “efforts to address health and economic security in tribal and insular communities … remain a black box to us and to the American people.”

“We intend to pull back the curtain and show how each taxpayer dollar is being spent by this administration and how this administration’s failing policies are impacting American families,” the Republicans on the committee said in a letter to Haaland and other Biden officials, warning them to expect document requests, on-the-record interviews and even “depositions” during the next two years of the 118th Congress.

Raúl Grijalva
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) is the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources for the 118th Congress. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources, Democrats

As for Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Indian Country will see familiar faces as well. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), is now the ranking member, having served as chair during the prior session of Congress.

“The last month of the 117th Congress showed the American people what a Democratic House majority can do,” Grijalva said of his party’s work, citing more than 100 bills and provisions that became law before the session closed at the end of December 2022.

As for Democratic priorities, Grijalva has made it clear he will be championing the Biden administration’s initiatives, especially those that benefit tribal nations, in the face of Republican criticism. On January 25, for example, he welcomed a prohibition on new roads, logging and construction in the Tongass National Forest on Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian homelands in southeast Alaska.

“Putting protections back in place for the Tongass National Forest honors the Indigenous Peoples who consider these lands sacred, recognizes the forest’s cultural and economic value, and is a win in the fight against climate change,” Grijalva said.

The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes wasn’t consulted when the forest was created in the early 1900s and had to go to court to be compensated for the unlawful taking of their lands. Their leadership is thanking the Department of Agriculture for restoring environmental safeguards at Tongass.

“The USDA has rectified a critical issue for our people who are most impacted by decisions affecting the Tongass,” President Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson said in a news release. “Our way of life is intertwined with these lands and waters, and we have a deep interest and duty to protect the traditional lands of our people in perpetuity.”

Tlingit Potato Harvest
Students and representatives of the Sitka Tribe take part in a harvest of the native Tlingit potato in the Sitka Ranger District of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. Photo by Amy Li / U.S. Forest Service

Then on January 26, Grijalva praised Secretary Haaland for barring mineral and geothermal leasing on more than 225,000 acres in the Superior National Forest. The decision protects the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, as well as Ojibwe treaty territory, in northern Minnesota, near the U.S. border with Canada.

“Some places are simply too special to mine,” said Grijalva. “I’m confident that the Boundary Waters’ more than 150,000 annual visitors, the local communities who rely on its economic benefits and pristine waters, and the Chippewa Bands who have called the area home since time immemorial would agree this is one of them.”

Under Public Land Order 7917, the ban on development on the affected acreage in Superior National Forest will remain in place for 20 years. The action covers an area known as the “1854 ceded territory” that is part of a tribal treaty signed almost 170 years ago.

“Protecting a place like Boundary Waters is key to supporting the health of the watershed and its surrounding wildlife, upholding our Tribal trust and treaty responsibilities, and boosting the local recreation economy,” Haaland said in a news release last Thursday.

Republicans, not surprisingly, are taking a different view. Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minnesota), a committee member who tried to derail Haaland’s historic nomination to a presidential cabinet, called the protections for treaty and sensitive lands as “an attack on our way of life” because they would block a massive mining project that’s being financed by wealthy foreign interests.

As for committee staff, at least three Native women are holding key positions for Democrats in the 118th Congress. The group includes Qay-liwh Ammon, a citizen of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, who will continue to serve as policy aide for the entire panel, Grijalva announced on January 5.

Also returning to help Democrats is Naomi Miguel, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation who is staff director for the House Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs. And Ariana Romeo, a fellow O’odham, is once again professional staffer on the same subcommittee.

The Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs was most recently known as Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States. Democrats first adopted the “Indigenous” moniker in the 116 Congress when they rose to power with the first two Native women elected to the House of Representatives.

According to the committee rules developed by the Republican majority, however, the “Indian and Insular Affairs” name is returning. The description had been used in prior sessions of Congress, most notably when the late Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), hailed by Alaska Natives as a champion for their issues, served on the panel. He passed away at the age of 88 last March, with Democrats leading efforts to honor his legacy in Indian Country.

Under the rules, which are due to be adopted at the organizational meeting on Wednesday, the House Subcommittee on Indian and Insular Affairs will have the following jurisdiction and responsibilities:

(1) All matters related to the Federal trust responsibility to Native Americans and the sovereignty of Native Americans.

(2) Measures relating to the welfare of Native Americans, including management of Indian lands in general and special measures relating to claims that are paid out of Indian funds.

(3) All matters regarding Native Alaskans.

(4) All matters regarding the relations of the United States with Native Americans and Native American tribes, including special oversight functions under House Rule X.

(5) All matters regarding Native Hawaiians.

(6) All matters regarding insular areas of the United States.

(7) All measures or matters regarding the Freely Associated States.

Also expected to be adopted on Wednesday is the staff hiring resolution. The document lists far more Republican aides than Democratic ones, another sign of the change in power on Capitol Hill.

The meeting takes place at 10:15am in Room 1324 of the Longworth House Office Building. And in another sign of Republican control, it is taking place entirely in person in the nation’s capital — with virtual participation options being removed by the majority under the new committee rules. Democrats had instituted virtual options during the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted American Indians and Alaska Natives at disproportionate rates.

The session, though, will be live-streamed, following long-standing practices in Congress. The link is

House Committee on Natural Resources Notice
Full Committee Organizational Meeting (February 1, 2023)
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