House chairman shares common concerns
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Tribes and Indian people should have the freedom to exercise their rights with as few federal limitations as possible, a leading House Republican said on Monday.

Rep. Richard Pombo brought a message of streamlined national government and respect for property rights to the 60th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). As a cattle rancher from California, he told attendees that he was prompted to run for U.S. Congress because of the increasing federal presence in his life.

"The concerns that I have over private property rights and water rights and the impact [federal control] had on the land and the ability of us to make a living off the land, was what drove me to get involved in politics to begin with," he said.

It's not a platform one often hears at an Indian event. Tribes look to a strong federal government to protect their rights and interests. Throughout the West, tribes and property rights proponents are often on the opposite sides of the fence on land, water and sacred sites.

But Pombo said his views are compatible with those of Native Americans. Limiting federal control puts decision-making in the hands of local governments, he said, especially tribes.

"When it comes to tribal sovereignty, that is something that was guaranteed. It was something that was part of the agreement," he told NCAI. "Over the years, we've watched that chipped away."

"Whether you're talking about land, water, the ability to hunt and fish -- all of the things that you expect to be part of your land and your ability to self-govern," he added, "the federal government has just gradually, over the last 100 years, chipped away at that."

Judging by the accolades he has received from tribal and Indian leaders, the philosophy has carried him well. In less than a year, Pombo has emerged as a key supporter of Indian issues. Since January, he has served as chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian affairs, and has taken an active interest in trust reform, self-governance, taxation and natural resource issues affecting Indian Country.

"Sometimes the voices that we carry, although they are strong, sometimes they fall on deaf ears," said Randy Noka, a council member for the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island. "But it's good to know that, thanks to people like you and others in Congress, we can go there and it will not fall on deaf ears."

In recent months, Pombo has been most visible on the Cobell trust fund lawsuit, which seeks an accounting of at least $13 billion in funds owed to Indian people. He succeeded in preventing some lawmakers from unilaterally imposing a settlement without consulting account holders or tribes, but narrowly lost a vote on a legislative measure that delays the case.

"That's the exact thing we need to avoid," he said. "It was the wrong thing to do to begin with."

Pombo used the rider, which was signed into law last week, to explain his vision. Only by working together, consulting with one another and establishing dialog can people begin to solve complex problems, he said. Trust funds, economic development and education were the areas he highlighted in his speech. Water and land rights, he added, will be his greater focus in the coming years.

"I can't come before this group and talk about trust because the federal government doesn't have a real good history when it comes to that," he said. "But we can begin to change things and make things better in the future."

Relevant Links:
Rep. Richard Pombo -
House Resources Committee -

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