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Indianz.Com Video: Senate takes action on Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA)
Indian Country sees progress on Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act
Monday, August 7, 2023

Indian Country is finally seeing progress on a long-overdue update to the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) although victory is not yet at hand.

On July 27, the U.S. Senate passed S.2226, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024, by a bipartisan vote of 86 to 11. The measure, which runs thousands of pages, represents a significant win for tribal nations, as it contains an amendment to reauthorize NAHASDA, the cornerstone of Indian housing law and policy.

Ever since NAHASDA expired a decade ago, tribes and their advocates have been trying to convince the U.S. Congress to update the law. Funding for Indian housing projects, for example, has remained stagnant since 2013 amid rising costs and inflation.

But the inclusion of NAHASDA in S.2226 means that tribes are closer than ever to success. The bill, commonly known as the NDAA, is considered must-pass in Congress.

“The success of NAHASDA and tribal housing programs stems from NAHASDA’s self-determination roots which allow tribes to develop their own Indian housing plan to fit the housing needs and priorities of their communities, and it also provides the flexibility tribes need to carry out their programs,” National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) Chairman Thomas Lozano said after passage of the NDAA on July 27.

“Tribes know best how to take care of their own citizens,” said Lozano, who also serves as treasurer of the Enterprise Rancheria, headquartered in California.

National American Indian Housing Council – Legislative Committee Meeting – April 6, 2023

Tribes and their advocates credited the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for adding NAHASDA to the NDAA. The Democratic chair and Republican vice chair developed the amendment that made it into S.2226.

“NAHASDA is a critical housing law for American Indians, Native Hawaiians, and Alaska Natives,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the chair of the committee. “This amendment is an important win for Native communities to address their urgent housing needs.”

“I’m pleased the Senate has overwhelmingly agreed to add our amendment to reauthorize and reform the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act to this year’s NDAA,” added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the vice chair of the legislative panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues.

But in the committee’s press release, Murkowski pointed out the major hurdle that tribes still must clear before NAHASDA is finally reauthorized. The U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans, already passed its own version of the NDAA — and it did not include the Indian housing bill.

“NAHASDA’s overwhelmingly bipartisan passage in the Senate is a victory for Indian Country, and now the focus must turn to the House to fully realize this victory so that we can improve the lives of those living in our communities,” Larry Wright Jr., a citizen of the Ponca Tribe who serves as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said in a news release.

NAHASDA expired during the 113th Congress in September 2013, when the political landscape looked a lot similar to what Indian Country is seeing today. A Democrat, Barack Obama, was in the Oval Office. Democrats controlled the Senate while Republicans were in charge of the House.

Despite bipartisan support for NAHASDA, however, Congress has consistently failed to reauthorize the bill over the last decade. In late 2014, for example, for example, the House passed a Republican-sponsored measure while a companion bill languished in the Senate. The pattern repeated during the 114th Congress, the NAIHC noted at the time.

Some of the impasse can be traced to a disagreement among tribes about Indian Housing Block Grant funds that are carried over from year to year. But lawmakers themselves — notably Democrats — have been in conflict about using NAHASDA to address a long-standing controversy involving the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, who are the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who were promised citizenship in five Indian nations in present-day Oklahoma after the end of the Civil War.

The Congressional Black Caucus, a group of African American lawmakers in the House, has sought to deny Indian housing funds to those five Indian nations until Freedmen descendants are recognized as citizens. An existing provision in federal law — one that has never been taken off the books — applies to the Cherokee Nation, linking receipt of NAHASDA money to the promise made by treaty in 1866. The statute was adopted by Congress in 2008, amid litigation in tribal and federal courts that eventually led to the Cherokee Freedmen being recognized as Cherokee citizens.

Indianz.Com Audio: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – Select Provisions of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes – July 25, 2022

Lawmakers like Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), a key Democratic leader who has used her position in the House to advocate for the Freedmen, have called on the U.S. government to extend the Indian housing provision to the Chickasaw Nation, the Choctaw Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the Seminole Nation. Marilyn Vann, the leader of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, agrees that such an approach is necessary to uphold the treaty promises.

“Can the tribes change without Congressional and federal intervention? History says no,” Vann, who was finally recognized as a Cherokee citizen following her decades-long fight, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs a little over a year ago.

“Cherokee Nation only came into compliance in 2017 after federal court decisions in Cherokee Nation v. Nash and Vann, and passage of Freedman protective language in the 2008 NAHASDA reauthorization act” Vann testified on July 27, 2022.

Cherokee Nation Housing
In February 2023, the Cherokee Nation broke ground on a 23-acre housing addition in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, named the Cherokee ᎦᎵᏦᏕ (Galitsode) Subdivision. When complete, the project will be home to dozens of Cherokee Nation families. Photo: Anadisgoi / Cherokee Nation

However, the NAHASDA reauthorization that the leaders of the Senate committee included in S.2226 does not include the Freedmen protective language that some Democrats in the House have called for. H.R.2670,, the House version of the NDAA that passed on July 14, does not include such provisions either. The GOP now controls the House — none of its members have spoken publicly in support of Freedmen language in any other legislative vehicle.

According to a summary released by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, S.2226 reauthorizes NAHASDA for seven years. The bill encourages greater self-determination over tribal housing, streamlines environmental reviews, increases accountability of federal funds and incentivizes private partnerships

“NAHASDA has been a successful program since its inception,” said NAIHC executive director Chelsea Fish. “Tribes were producing new housing units at rates similar to or higher than HUD prior to NAHASDA’s enactment.”

“By creating their own Indian Housing Plan, tribes can prioritize senior assisted housing, rental assistance or homeownership,” said Fish, a citizen of the Seminole Nation. “Reauthorization of NAHASDA means increased resources and stronger programming.”
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