Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Harjo: Order in the House needed for Indian affairs

The House of Representatives dismantled its longstanding Committee on Indian Affairs in 1946, as strident special interests were trying to end federal/tribal treaty and trust relationships and to force Indians to cash out land, water, minerals and other resources.

Today, more than 60 years later, Indian issues are still handled on an unstructured, ad hoc basis in the House Resources Committee, where they are subject to the same competing interests.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was abolished in 1946, too, but the upper chamber reinstated it as a select panel in 1977 and made it permanent in 1984.

What else was happening in 1946, when Congress disestablished its Indian committees? For one thing, it established the Indian Claims Commission that year.

Indian people who knew about the ICC were led to believe that it was a forum for redress of grievances and reparations for unconscionable land deals. Some of the ICC law's sponsors spoke of justice and legal equities. Others said it was a way to wipe the slate clean. Lawyers said, ''Goody,'' and took from 40 percent to 90 percent of ICC monetary awards.

Native Americans were shocked when decades later, the Supreme Court ruled that a treaty claim for land had already been decided by the ICC and that acceptance of the pennies-an-acre payment settled and extinguished claims for tangible resources.

In the World War II years, Congress was looking for lands to use as bombing practice ranges, for munitions storage and as atomic and nuclear test sites. From the Aleutian Islands to Arizona, from North Dakota to Texas and from Maine to Florida, Indian lands were being used for those military purposes and even as detention camps for Japanese Americans and for German prisoners of war.

When the House and Senate got rid of their Indian committees, they assigned jurisdiction over Indian subcommittees to the Public Lands panels, which became the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. They might as well have been Indian resources shopping malls.

Congress ordered the BIA to make lists of tribes that were ''ready'' for termination of the federal/tribal relationship.

The BIA came up with one list of tribes whose people were Christians, spoke English, were racially more non-Indian than Indian and who were mostly economically self-sufficient. Another list included those who practiced their traditional religion, spoke their heritage language, were racially Indian and lived in poverty. A third list included tribes in between.

While all that was going on, the House Un-American Activities Committee was preoccupied with the hunt for communists in various segments of American society. Some of its members looked askance at the Roosevelt New Dealers, including the Indian New Dealers, and started characterizing Indian reservations as ''socialistic.''

Some HUAC members sponsored the ICC legislation and helped end the Indian affairs committees. And bankers, loggers, oil and gas companies, mining interests and land developers lined up in the hallways with their own termination wish lists.

In the 1970s, Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall, D-Ariz., took Indian affairs into the full committee, in order to get rid of a subcommittee that had become a magnet for anti-Indian, anti-treaty forces nationwide.

Udall's system, as he explained it to a few of us at the National Congress of American Indians, was to floor manage many bills himself and to call on nonconflicted committee members to manage one bill each in a two-year Congress. For example, he had a dicey water issue in his state, so a New York representative shepherded that matter from start to finish.

Many pro-Indian legislators answered Udall's call and made a batch of good laws. Some members are still in Congress and still doing more than their share of the work of the House on Indian matters. Udall was a tireless advocate and his system worked well for as long as his stamina matched his commitment. When he became ill with Parkinson's disease and started slowing down, so did progress on Indian legislation.

Interior became the Natural Resources Committee in 1993 and an Indian subcommittee was established for a few years, under the chairmanship of another fine advocate, Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M. Now, Indian legislation is handled in the full Resources Committee.

The absence of an Indian affairs structure means that Native people have very few points of access to the legislative process. Even members of Congress don't have much control over the federal Indian policy developed in their names. Decisions about substance, timing and progress of legislation are left to a handful of staffers, who can be curt and unavailable to members and Native people alike.

It's no wonder that some tribal leaders got sick and tired of being dismissed and disrespected, or just getting nowhere, and hired Team Abramoff and their ilk to go around the Resources Committee to the House leadership. Others, who lacked system-greasing money, were forced to smile and perfect the posture of a supplicant.

One Resources Committee staffer went before the NCAI's legislative strategy session, Jan. 23 and 24, and chided the group for bypassing her with the ''NCAI-initiated'' request for a House Indian committee. The staffer said she received a call about the written request from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and was caught off-guard because no one told her anything about it.

It was reminiscent of the days in the 1960s and 1970s, when BIA employees would chastise Indian leaders for not checking in with them before going to the Hill (which was an improvement from the days when tribal people were not permitted, and later not expected, to go anywhere in Washington without a BIA escort).

Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is a soft-spoken, kindly gentleman - not the sort to chide tribal leaders in public or private. It's understandable that he does not want to relinquish committee jurisdiction or staff positions, especially after spending many years in the Ranking Minority Member position under Republican rule.

But the fact that important Native organizations want the House to reinstate the Indian committee should give him pause.

NCAI and six other groups have called for a full Indian affairs committee in the House. They also have rejected the idea of an Indian subcommittee within the Resources Committee. Other organizations joining NCAI are the National Indian Business Association, National Indian Education Association,

National Indian Gaming Association, National Indian Health Board, National Indian Housing Council and the Native American Rights Fund.

Many Native leaders are concerned that former Resources Committee leaders and staffers did not attend last year's meetings with Senate Indian committee and tribal leaders on settlement of the Indian trust funds case.

They also say that a House Indian committee might have been able to move the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which has been stalled since 2001.

In a Nov. 30, 2006, letter to Pelosi, Reps. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., and Tom Cole, R-Okla., of the Native American Caucus, wrote: ''We have spoken to several of our colleagues who have expressed a strong desire to serve on a House Indian Affairs Committee. There is much work to be done to improve the quality of life for Indian people who still suffer from the highest levels of poverty, unemployment and lack of health care.

''Re-establishing a House Committee ... would send a strong signal that the House is ready to tackle the difficult problems facing Native Americans.'' Kildee and the caucus have saved the day several times on Indian bills, sometimes in the absence of action by the Resources Committee.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.