“I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with tribal leaders and members to address the issues that they’ve told us matter most to them and to promote thesolutions they tell us will work best.”
“Build better lives.” That’s the motto of a small community bank owned by the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. This simple mission statement was shared with the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs by the president and founder of the bank. Since the bank started in 2002, it has loaned roughly $1.5 billion to people and businesses in Indian country.
Native businesses everywhere are helping other Native businesses. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I’ve heard similar stories from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes of the Wind River Reservation in my home state of Wyoming and from tribes across Indian country.
The idea of helping people build better lives is exactly what our committee has sought to do. As a Republican, I truly believe that tribes and their members are better off when Washington stays out of the way. As chairman, I outlined specific priorities to make this happen.
The committee tackled problems affecting the quality of life for Native Americans. We focused on jobs, energy and natural-resource development, health care, juvenile justice and tribal self-governance. In each case, the solutions were found in Indian country, not in Washington.
Over the past two years, we’ve held more than 40 hearings and travelled to eight different states for town hall meetings, field hearings and listening sessions. Based on what we heard, we introduced and passed legislation to help build stronger, safer and healthier communities.
Our committee passed more than 50 bills for the full Senate to consider. Twenty-one passed both houses of Congress and were signed into law. That’s a remarkable accomplishment given all the dysfunction and gridlock in Washington.
Just this month, we passed laws to hold the government accountable for fixing aging dams and irrigation systems on the Wind River Reservation and in tribal communities across the west. Stronger dams will keep communities safe from flooding. Farmers and ranchers who rely on the government to deliver their water can be confident that it will be there.
In March 2015, we heard troubling testimony of dangerous highways that are costing lives in tribal areas. Republicans and Democrats worked together to boost funding for tribal road maintenance by more than $50 million over the next five years. We also simplified the approval process for tribes wanting to take on safety projects on their roads.
We passed a law to protect Native children in the foster care system by requiring increased background checks for potential foster parents. We found ways to allow tribes to better manage their own trust assets and to promote tourism in tribal communities. These will boost local economies and create opportunities for people to learn about Native history and cultures.
Our committee examined other important issues facing tribal leaders today. We held oversight hearings on topics such as the failures of the Indian Health Service, Washington’s land-into-trust process, economic development, juvenile justice and victims’ rights. There is still more work to be done.
It has been an honor to serve as chairman of the Indian Affairs committee. I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with tribal leaders and members to address the issues that they’ve told us matter most to them and to promote the solutions they tell us will work best.
Next Congress, the committee will have a new chairman. I will work with the chairman and the Trump administration to continue promoting tribal self-governance and strengthening our government-to-government relationship.
Economic development, improved health care, and safer communities won’t come from Washington. They’ll come from tribal organizations and businesses creating new jobs. They’ll come from tribal communities brimming with innovative ideas that will build better lives for tribal members and for all Americans.
Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, is chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.