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Congress Must Rebuild Trust With Native American Tribes

Ask any Native American tribe for a story about working with Congress and you’ll probably hear a story of frustration. There are too many examples to count of Washington not taking tribal sovereignty seriously, ignoring trust and treaty responsibilities, and failing to protect Native American historical treasures. Even the local football team is insensitive to Native People.

Unfortunately, much of this is based not on legitimate political differences but on a prevailing attitude that Native American history is important only when it is convenient, Native American economic interests are secondary and Native American land is held by tribes only through the grace and favor of the federal government.

This attitude has spilled out into the open several times on Capitol Hill in recent days. Rather than slowly getting better, Congress’ treatment of Indian Country seems to be getting worse.

When President Obama, using the time-honored Antiquities Act signed into law by Teddy Roosevelt, established three new national monuments on July 10 in Nevada, California and Texas, the protection of Native American art and artifacts was among his top priorities. Basin and Range National Monument in southeastern Nevada will protect petroglyph and prehistoric rock art dating back thousands of years. In the conservation community, not to mention the Native American community, this was an occasion to celebrate.

House Republicans, however, were not celebrating. When a reporter asked for his views on the new monuments and pointed out the rich Native American history involved, Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah replied, “Ah, bull crap. That’s not an antiquity.” Earlier that same day, a release from the Chairman stated, “There is nothing that [President] Obama did today that had anything to do with an antiquity.”

This was not an isolated incident. Representative Don Young, who chairs the Committee’s panel on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, lectured representatives of the Zuni Pueblo and Navajo Nation at a July 15 hearing about accepting whatever decision Congress made on a land dispute at Fort Wingate, New Mexico. “Either you take what we’re going to give you and be happy, or you’re going to lose it,” he told them. “You better be happy with what you’re going to get.”

In April, the Majority convened a subcommittee hearing that should have occasioned an objective discussion of new tribal recognition standards proposed by the Obama Administration. The Majority decided to call it The Obama Administration’s Part 83 Revisions and How They May Allow the Interior Department to Create Tribes, not Recognize Them. Tribes and those seeking tribal recognition deserve better than this kind of rhetoric.

Perhaps most egregiously, last year’s National Defense Authorization Act – a bill President Obama could not have easily vetoed – included a shameful provision mandating a land swap long favored by a mining firm called Resolution Copper, which is co-owned by multinational conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, at the expense of sacred Native American land.

For years, Resolution has sought access to a copper deposit in eastern Arizona at a site called Oak Flat, which has been home to the San Carlos Apache Nation’s traditional acorn and medicinal herb collecting and religious ceremonies for centuries. Oak Flat includes some of the Nation’s most important cultural and historic land and is near an especially sacred mountain called Apache Leap, where warriors jumped to their deaths rather than allowing themselves to be captured by pursuing U.S. cavalry. For the San Carlos Apache, few sites have equal importance. They fear Apache Leap will collapse or be damaged by the intensive block cave mining Resolution proposes.

Their wishes have been ignored. Last Congress, Republican House leaders had to cancel a vote on a bill forcing the Forest Service to trade the land to Resolution due to lack of support. Undeterred, Arizona’s Republican senators snuck a swap provision into the defense bill knowing it would not be easy to remove – or easy for President Obama to reject. Now the San Carlos Apache are facing the imminent prospect of permanent damage to this sacred site.

The line on treating Indian Country with disrespect has to be drawn. On June 17, I introduced the bipartisan Save Oak Flat Act to repeal the land trade while leaving the defense law intact. It’s one fight I can truly say I’m proud to lead.

The larger fight to make sure Congress treats Indian Country with the respect it deserves – and to which it is entitled under our laws and any standard of decent governance – will be longer and more difficult. But it’s a fight that needs to happen.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva has represented Southern Arizona in Congress since 2003. He is the former chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, and is currently the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations. His district includes the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the Cocopah Indian Tribe and part of the Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe.