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Tanasi Memorial
The Tanasi Memorial in Tennessee marks the site of the Cherokee Nation capital in the early 1700s. Photo: Brian Stansberry
Republican-controlled House set to approve first Indian Country bills
Monday, February 6, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The 118th Congress is finally underway and Indian Country bills are among the first to advance in a new political atmosphere on Capitol Hill.

Two tribal homelands bills are set to be approved by the U.S. House of Representatives as soon as Monday afternoon. Both measures are being considered under a suspension of the rules, meaning they enjoy broad support among Republican and Democratic lawmakers, a notable feat in a chamber that remains deeply divided along party lines.

But the long-running practice of quickly passing non-controversial legislation under a suspension of the rules has fallen out of favor among Republicans, who took control of the House at the start of the 118th Congress on January 3. Complaints about suspensions, in fact, were part of a bitter dispute that prevented Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-California) from being seated as Speaker because members of his own party withheld their support until he agreed to change the way business is conducted in the chamber.

“The American public said they want a change,” Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) said on January 5 as he nominated — and voted for — a different Republican candidate for Speaker, an act that kept McCarthy from taking control until a record 15th round of voting in the chamber.

“They want something new,” said Biggs, whose record includes enactment of the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act. “They want something different, and we are on a path that just continues.”

So far in the 118th Congress, Republicans appear to be taking a more cautious approach to suspensions. Fewer than a dozen bills have been considered under a suspension of the rules over the past month, according to a review of the legislative record.

“I was told I should not be so concerned with these suspension bills that get passed every week because now they have made an amendment,” said Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Montana) as he too withheld support for McCarthy becoming Speaker of the House. “We keep hearing about these amendments and the concessions that were made. The concession was that they will not ask for anything to be suspended that costs more than $100 million.’

“Now, I don’t know about the neighborhoods that you live in, but in the neighborhood that I live in, $100 million is a lot of money,” said Rosendale, who serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over Indian Country issues.

In comparison, Democrats used suspensions extensively when they controlled the House. According to the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, 301 of the 350 measures that passed the chamber in 2022 were approved under an expedited “suspension bill” process.

“Of the suspension bills considered in 2022, 98.4 percent (301 bills) passed the House,” the non-profit said in explaining how the process has been used to quickly get legislation approved.

For now, it’s too early to tell how Indian Country legislation will fare now that Republicans are in charge. The two tribal homelands bills that are being considered on Monday have <previously passed the chamber. Both happen to have been introduced in the 118th Congress by Republican lawmakers.

H.R. 548, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act, was introduced by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee) on January 26. The bill places about 76 acres in Tennessee into trust for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The lands are located within the historic Cherokee Nation, which once covered a wide swath of the southeastern United States until the tribe was forced to cede territory and was confined to smaller reservations. The bill includes significant cultural and historic properties that are currently managed by the federal government.

“The great State of Tennessee, my home state, gets its name from the historic Overhill Cherokee village site called Tanasi located in present-day Monroe County, Tennessee,” Fleischmann said when the bill was passed by the House during the prior session of Congress. “Tanasi served as the capital of the Cherokee people from as early as 1721.”

“Unfortunately, as a result of misguided federal policies, the Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homes in Tennessee and surrounding States,” Fleischmann added. “This tragic period in American history led to the Trail of Tears, a journey on which the United States forcibly marched 15,000 Cherokees to the Indian territory.”

Gregory Canyon
Gregory Canyon in San Diego County, California, is one of the most important places for the Pala Band of Mission Indians. Photo courtesy Pala Band

H.R.423, Pala Band of Mission Indians Land Transfer Act, was introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) on January 20. The bill places about 721 acres in California into trust for the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

The lands include areas in and around Gregory Mountain, one of the tribe’s most important places. A portion in fact at one point was slated to be used as a landfill, a project that threatened the sacred landscape in Gregory Canyon.

“The Pala Band of Indians had to buy this land at their own expense in order to gift it, essentially, to the federal government,” Issa said during the 117th Congress. “They do so because of the importance of their ancestral land and their pride in the people they are and the people they have been since before man, Western man, walked into California and disrupted their lives.”

According to the House Majority Leader’s calendar, H.R.548 and H.R.423 will be considered, along with a third bill, starting at 2pm Eastern on Monday. The three measures could pass by the chamber by the end of the day.

The U.S. Senate would still have to take action before the tribal homelands bills can be sent to President Joe Biden for his signature. The Senate remains under Democratic control for the 118th Congress.

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