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House Committee on Natural Resources: Full Committee Mark Up – June 13, 2023
House committee advances slate of Indian Country bills
Wednesday, June 14, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bipartisanship seemed to be on rare display on Capitol Hill as lawmakers advanced a trio of bills benefiting Indian Country.

During a markup on Tuesday morning, members of the Republican-led House Committee on Natural Resources complimented each other for their work on tribal legislation. Two tribal-specific bills on the agenda were approved by unanimous consent — meaning everyone agreed to their consideration — while a third was secured by unanimous vote.

“Let me start by saying how we are encouraged by the list of measures in front of us today,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), now serving as the ranking Democratic member of the committee for the 118th Congress. He had previously served as chair, when Democrats were in control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Most of the legislation today will promote tribal self-determination and self-governance,” said Grijalva.

Indianz.Com Audio: House Committee on Natural Resources – Full Committee Mark Up – June 13, 2023

Tribal Homelands #LandBack – H.R.1240, Winnebago Land Transfer Act
Approved by unanimous consent at the markup was H.R.1240, the Winnebago Land Transfer Act. The bill returns about 1,600 acres that were illegally taken from the Winnebago Tribe by the federal government.

The committee held a hearing on H.R.1240 just last Wednesday, so the bill is moving quickly in the House. Prior versions have been considered in past sessions of Congress, all in hopes of resolving a problem created by the United States more than 50 years ago.

“Our elders prayed for this day and they prayed for the livelihood of the tribe and the return of this land,” Chairwoman Victoria Kitcheyan testified last week.

Indianz.Com Audio: Victoria Kitcheyan / Winnebago Tribe – H.R. 1240

Rep. Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa), a Republican whose Congressional district in Iowa includes the land taken from the tribe, is sponsoring H.R.1240. The Democratic-led Biden administration is supporting the bill.

“In the 1970s, the tracks identified in the legislation were acquired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through an erroneous condemnation action in eminent domain,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a political appointee at the Department of the Interior, told the House Subcommittee for Indian and Insular Affairs on June 7.

The committee approved the bill by unanimous consent after an amendment was included at the request of Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-Wyoming), the chairwoman of the subcommittee. The language bars the tribe from engaging on the newly acquired lands.

The tribe agreed to the inclusion of the amendment. Already operating on the Iowa portion of Winnebago homelands is the WinneVegas gaming facility.

H.R.1420 can now be considered by the full House for passage. Currently, there isn’t a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, but the chamber could always take up the House version.

Wounded Knee Cemetery
The Wounded Knee cemetery on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo: Jeremiah Murphy

Tribal Homelands #LandBack – H.R.3371, Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial and Sacred Site Act
Also benefiting from unanimous consent on Tuesday was H.R.3371, the Wounded Knee Massacre Memorial and Sacred Site Act. The bill places about 40 acres in restricted fee status for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The land, located in South Dakota, includes the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. More than 300 Lakota women, children, elders and men were murdered by U.S. military soldiers on December 29, 1890, tribal leaders said at a hearing on the bill last Wednesday.

“This particular parcel of land, 40 acres, is where the killing fields of our people,” Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Ryman LeBeau told the House Subcommittee for Indian and Insular Affairs on June 7.

Indianz.Com Audio: Ryman LeBeau / Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe – H.R. 3371

“The Wounded Knee Massacre is one of the darkest events in the history of the United States. It was a senseless, cruel and unjustifiable massacre of hundreds of Indian men, women, and children by the United States,” Oglala Sioux Chairman Frank Star Comes Out testified.

“Our people have grieved for well over a century and genocidal attack on our people and our way of life that took place at Wounded Knee,” said Star Comes Out.

Indianz.Com Audio: Frank Star Comes Out / Oglala Sioux Tribe – H.R. 3371

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota), a Republican who district covers the entire state of South Dakota, is sponsoring the bill. The Biden administration testified in support last week.

“This legislation directs the Secretary of the Interior to complete any necessary actions for the land to be held by the tribes in restricted fee status,” said Assistant Secretary Newland. Land in restricted fee status is protected in a manner similar to land held in trust.

H.R.3371 can now be considered by the full House for passage. Currently, there isn’t a companion bill in the U.S. Senate, but the chamber could always take up the House version.

Indianz.Com Video: Cody Desautel – Intertribal Timber Council – Treating Tribes and Counties as Good Neighbors Act

Tribal Parity – H.R.1450, Treating Tribes and Counties as Good Neighbors Act
Another tribal friendly bill on the agenda garnered bipartisan support during the markup. H.R.1450, the Treating Tribes and Counties as Good Neighbors Act, ensures that tribes are treated the same as states when it comes to managing federal forest lands.

“I’ve traveled extensively in the West and one thing that h Has been overwhelmingly noticeable is when you go to tribal lands where they’re managing the forest, they’re, on a different scale as far as terms of healthy forest than what we see on the neighboring Forest Service lands,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas), the chair of the legislative panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues.

“We can definitely learn from the tribes and use their expertise to make all of our lands healthy,” Westerman said at the markup.

The National Congress of American Indians and the National Association of Counties are among the organizations in support of H.R.1450, Westerman said. The Intertribal Timber Council also testified in support during a hearing on May 23.

“All of America’s forests were once inhabited, managed and used by Indian people,” said Cody Desautel, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation who serves as president of Intertribal Timber Council. “Today only a small portion of those lands remain under direct Indian management.”

Cody Desautel / Intertribal Timber Council

Recognition of tribal management began to change with passage of the Farm Bill in 2018. The law included tribes and counties in Good Neighbor Authority program at the Department of Agriculture for the first time.

But Desautel said a minor error in the 2018 prevents tribes and counties from utilizing revenues from forest restoration projects in the same manner as states. H.R.1450 corrects the oversight.

“The disparity in funding between tribal forests and other federal forests continues to grow,” Desautel said at the hearing last month, offering the example of the his own tribe, where he serves as executive director. He said the Colville Tribes were unable to proceed with a restoration project on forest land adjacent to the reservation in Washington because it would have cost too much.

“Without an ability to retain revenue to support tribal capacity, it is unlikely tribes will will contribute already limited tribal revenue sources to conduct work on adjacent federal land,” Desautel told the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands.

Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho), a Republican from Idaho, is sponsoring H.R.1450. The Biden administration supports the measure.

“We believe expanding the authority to allow tribes and counties to retain receipts, as proposed in the bill, would significantly increase county and tribal participation,” Troy Heithecker, the Associate Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said in written testimony.

The committee approved H.R.1450 after an amendment in the nature of a substitute was offered by Fulcher. The vote in favor of the bill was 39 to 0.

“I’m encouraged that today we will mostly be advancing legislation that fosters tribal self-determination, promotes parity for tribes and protects federal lands,” said Grijalva.

H.R.1450 can now be considered by the full House for passage. The companion version in the Senate is S.697, which has not yet received a hearing.

Bruce Westerman and Raul Grijalva
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas), left, and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), seen here at the U.S. Capitol on June 8, 2023, serve as chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Committee on Natural Resources, the legislative panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues in the U.S. House of Representatives. Photo courtesy Natural Resources Democrats

Urban Indian Health Care – H.R.630, Urban Indian Health Confer Act
Despite Grijalva’s positive outlook on most of the committee’s work, the panel was unable to advance his bill — H.R.630, the Urban Indian Health Confer Act — as anticipated.

The bill requires all agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop policies to confer with urban Indian organizations (UIOs) on actions that affect the communities they serve. Currently, only the Indian Health Service has an urban Indian confer policy.

“An urban confer is an open and free exchange of information and opinions that leads to a mutual understanding and comprehension and emphasizes trust, respect, and shared responsibility,” Francys Crevier, the chief executive officer of the National Council of Urban Indian Health said at a hearing on the bill last Wednesday.

“It gives UIOs a mechanism to initiate discussions on policies that are impacting their communities and requires HHS to take their concerns into consideration,” Crevier said.

Indianz.Com Audio: Francys Crevier / National Council of Urban Indian Health – H.R. 630

During the June 7 hearing, the Biden administration did not outright express support or opposition to the development of more urban Indian confer policies at HHS. Melanie Anne Egorin, the Assistant Secretary for Legislation at the department, instead referred repeatedly to the federal government’s obligation to consult with tribal governments on a nation-to-nation basis with the United States.

“HHS takes its responsibility to consult with tribal governments seriously,” Egorin said. “As such, HHS’s policy specifically recognizes the unique political status of tribal governments, and it is upon this status that nation-to-nation relationships are affirmed through the HHS tribal consultation policy.”

Egorin also repeatedly described UIOs as “grantees” when asked about ways to improve communications with the organizations that were established to serve tribal members who were relocated by the federal government to urban areas, primarily during the 1950s and 1960s. Crevier objected to the characterization as a misunderstanding of the government’s trust and treaty responsibilities.

“It is critical that HHS and all agencies it operates establish a formal confer process. No policy about us without us,” said Crevier.

Indianz.Com Audio: Melanie Anne Egorin / Department of Health and Human Services – H.R. 630

“The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how the lack of an urban confer requirement can have real world impacts,” Crevier added. “For instance, vital information regarding distribution for the initial COVID vaccine rollout was not communicated with with UIOs, which resulted in a delayed distribution to many and delayed life-saving treatment due to this bureaucracy.”

But not everyone is on board with the H.R.630. Grijalva agreed to postpone work on the legislation in order to address concerns raised by the National Indian Health Board about the trust and treaty obligations of the U.S.

“We feel that we have an accountable, defensible legal piece of legislation that has been vetted over and over again,” Grijalva said in response to a letter sent by NIHB.

“We will work with the chair and the ranking member of the subcommittee — the staff will — to initiate discussions with the Health Board and with other tribal organizations,” Grijalva said in reference to the House Subcommittee for Indian and Insular Affairs.

The urban Indian confer policy otherwise enjoys bipartisan support. The Senate version is S.460, which was introduced in February.

House Committee on Natural Resources Notice
Full Committee Mark Up (June 13, 2023)
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