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Congress shake-ups affect Indian country

WASHINGTON – When Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., announced his retirement Feb. 11, he became part of a growing chorus of congressional exits and changes that have consequences for Indian country.

Just this fall, Kennedy had been courted publicly by Indian leaders to become a new guiding light in the area of Indian education, as his father, the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts had been 40 years ago.

With the death of the elder Kennedy and the younger Kennedy’s retirement, Native educators are now left to find another federal champion.

“The net gain for Indian country is not good at all,” said Ryan Wilson, the Oglala Lakota president of National Alliance to Save Native Languages. He was one of the Indian leaders in November to request Kennedy’s increased attention.

Meanwhile, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, announced in December that he was retiring to run for governor of his state. Like Kennedy, he’s played an important appropriations role for tribes.

“With the retirements of Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Abercrombie and the prospect for a significant change in the overall membership of the House, it is evident that the House will be a much different place in 2011 than it is today,” said Eric Eberhard, an Indian law professor with Seattle University Law School.

Even the loss of a House leader not known to be a big champion of Indian issues, Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., who died unexpectedly in early February, is affecting Indian country.

Murtha’s passing means Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., will move from the Interior and EPA appropriations subcommittees to the defense appropriations subcommittee, so tribes are losing someone with a long history of support for adequate funding for health care, education, governance and the protection of natural resources, Eberhard said.

In the other chamber, Native America learned in January it would lose an important ally, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., current chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, when he announced he would not be running for another term after 30 years in Congress. Throughout his tenure, he has been a strong advocate of tribal justice, health and sovereignty issues.

Beyond lawmakers leaving, big staff changes involving Native American affairs have happened or will soon.

It’s well-known that Kim Teehee, a longtime Cherokee staffer on Indian issues for Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., was selected by President Barack Obama to be his top Indian affairs advisor last year. Her exit has ended up creating a vacuum of knowledge on the congressional staff side that isn’t easily replaced, tribal observers said.

Then came news from Marie Howard, who told friends in January that she’ll retire in March from her position as director of the Office of Indian Affairs with the House Committee on Natural Resources. The daughter of the late-Rep. James Howard is widely known as an institution for Indian issues in Congress, having spent most of the last three decades working in the arena.

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“It’s impossible to overstate the value of expert staff like Marie Howard and Kim Teehee to tribal governments and congressional Indian policy,” said Holly Cook Macarro, a partner at the Indian federal relations firm Ietan Consulting. She is a citizen of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians.

“Their knowledge of the process and the players has been a critical resource to tribal leaders over the years. Marie’s long history in the House gave her an unparalleled strategic view on how to get things done. Kim’s policy expertise is already missed but we can see her mark on the Obama administration, which is an all-around good thing.”

Eberhard said the changes create difficulties for tribes in an area that’s already challenging.

“The tribes always have an uphill battle in the Congress in terms of trying to make sure that new members and staff understand the unique relationship and history between tribes and the federal government.

“That work will be more important than it has been in a long time after the next election. There will be 50 or more new members of Congress and dozens of new staffers to educate.”

He said it’s important for tribes to participate in the congressional elections in the states and to begin the process of educating prospective members now.

Laura Harris, the Comanche director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, said the changes illustrate to her how crucial it is to institutionalize Native American affairs within the federal government.

She said the House Native American Congressional Caucus is a fine vehicle for building awareness and support for Indian issues and has a significant positive impact on Indian country, but she feels it could be stronger.

“It is in a category with other ‘minority’ groups, like Hispanics, blacks and women. Native Americans are unlike other groups because tribes are governments. Therefore, Native Americans must have a more institutionalized permanent voice in Congress.”

She noted that her organization, under the leadership of her mother, LaDonna Harris, was instrumental in making the Senate Select Committee into a permanent committee on Indian affairs – the one that Dorgan now chairs – as well as supporting the creation of “Indian desks” and the adoption of Indian policy statements by federal departments and agencies.

Harris believes the institutional memory of people like Howard and Teehee could be passed along more easily if there were a Native American subcommittee staff on the House side.

“The solution is to establish a permanent committee or subcommittee in the U.S. House that is created to deal with the business of tribal governments and Native American issues.”