Watching most Congressional hearings is about as exciting as an afternoon at the DMV. A recent House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs however, was like watching a 10-car pile-up on the interstate. It was also as horrifying as a wreck for many observers, since it involved a shocking assault on Native rights that have been sacrosanct for 80 years.
The hearing also featured a riveting throwdown between Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn and Committee Chairman Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). These two men squared off in a power struggle over the authority to federally recognize tribes and take land into trust.
Congressman Young seems to be leading an insurrection against Native rights on Capitol Hill through his subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Native Alaskan Affairs. On April 22nd, that committee held a hearing called “The Obama Administration’s Part 83 [Federal Recognition Regulations] Revisions and How They May Allow the Interior Department to Create Tribes, not Recognize Them.” One of the highlights – or lowlights if your sympathies are with Native rights and what’s fair and legal – was a speaker who supports terminating federal recognition of tribes.
The subcommittee’s May 14 hearing was called “Inadequate Standards for Trust Land Acquisition in the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA),” The hearing’s stated purpose was to examine whether Congress should pass a law to rein in the Department of the Interior Secretary’s authority to take land into trust for Indians and Indian tribes. Congress gave the Secretary that authority when it enacted the IRA in 1934. The memos for those two hearings (here and here) make it clear that Young is eager to severely limit or even eliminate the federal recognition of tribes, and back away from taking land into trust.
Young enlivened the May 14th proceedings with several angry outbursts, scolding and threatening witnesses who in any way displeased him. His behavior shocked some people in the room, and prompted one well-seasoned hearing-goer to say he’d had never seen anything like it.
Young launched into his first angry outburst just before Secretary Washburn spoke, tearing into the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). “This hearing is a hearing to hear for a solution to the Carcieri question about trust lands,” Young began, referring to the 2009 Supreme Court ruling that said the Interior Secretary could take land into trust only for tribes “under federal jurisdiction” in 1934, when the IRA was passed. Then Young suddenly changed direction, and started pounding on NCAI. “I’m a little frustrated, for those in the audience, with the National Congress of American Indians,” he said. “Little communication, no phone calls but a lot of gasoline and fire on an issue that shouldn’t have been an issue. I don’t appreciate it. I know who’s involved and if you want to have an open access to this chairmanship – and as long as I sit here I will be chairman – I’m gonna suggest that we play ball straight!”
For the rest of the hearing, Young’s tone alternated between mild-mannered and loudly threatening. “This is not to start an issue or try to destroy the effects of this committee,” he nearly shouted at one point. “I hope everybody understands that, because I do not forgive very well when it comes to thinking they can destroy the effects of his committee.”
Young got so heated that he was pounding on the table as he said, “Not once have I not served the American Indian and Alaska Natives! To bring me into question does yourself a disservice and when I’m not happy you’re not going to be happy either.”
Young didn’t explain why he was “frustrated” with NCAI, but the organization later provided the following statement when asked for comment: “As an advocacy organization, NCAI heard concerns from our member tribes about the tone and direction of the subcommittee hearing. In particular the title of the hear was a concern, the hearing memo seemed to indicate that the Dawes Act was ‘humane’ and called into question the constitutionality of the Indian Reorganization Act. Tribal land recovery is an issue with a long history so we felt it was important to educate committee members on that history and benefits of land to trust. NCAI looks forward to meeting with the Chairman to discuss any misunderstanding and working together to move the Carcieri fix through Congress.”
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and co-chair of the Native American Caucus, presented testimony supporting the IRA and strengthening the Interior Secretary’s authority to take land into trust. Cole said that the IRA was “an effort to reverse a tragic mistake” – the 1887 Dawes Act – which had reduced Indian lands from 138 million acres to 48 million acres in 50 years. His presentation can be seen here.
By the time Secretary Washburn spoke, it was clear that Young’s committee was pushing an agenda that runs counter to federal law and the policies of the Obama administration. Washburn’s defense of Indian country was passionate, but he kept his delivery cool and composed.
“I want to thank the committee for its honesty,” he said. “If anyone wonders about your motives for holding these hearings the committee has provided these memorandums for both hearings in which the benefits of tribal sovereignty are questioned. You’ve made clear your concerns about tribal governments and you’ve not hidden your prejudices and I respect that and although I disagree with you I’m glad you’re not running from your convictions. … I worry that your vision returns us to what some believe were the darkest days of Indian policy.”
With a nod to the upcoming presidential elections, Washburn said the committee has given voters a clear choice between “that vision of Indian country presented in the memos of this committee and President Obama’s vision for Indian country.”
At one point, Young asked Washburn for a list of land into trust applications that have been accepted and those that have been rejected. Washburn explained that he couldn’t provide a list of disapprovals because the BIA doesn’t issue very many of them. If an application has problems, he said, the tribe is told and withdraws it.
“Now wait a minute!” Young said loudly. “Don’t tell me you can’t if there is one! You have your lawyer behind you, you’re a lawyer...As far as you not giving me the information, don’t ever cross me that way, Kevin! If I ask, YOU WLL GIVE ME THAT INFORMATION!” He then threatened to subpoena Washburn for the documents.
Washburn was clearly not cowed by Young, and continued to mount a vigorous defense of Indian country that some tribal leaders said was unprecedented for someone in his position.
Addressing Young directly, Washburn reminded him that committee members at the April hearing had raised constitutional questions about the legitimacy of the tribes that have been recognized by the executive branch and the Department of the Interior. And now, he said, the committee was launching a much broader attack on Indian country by asserting that there are inadequate standards for trust acquisition and questioning whether the administration has the power to take land into trust for tribes.
“It’s on your conscience and on mine if this attack on Indian country is allowed to succeed,” Washburn told Young. “I don’t intend to stand idly by and let it happen on my watch and I ask the same of you. I’m here today to let the committee know that Indian country will not shy away from a righteous battle – if we did we would no longer exist. If history proves anything, it proves that Indian tribes are fighters. I respectfully ask you not to take this path. If you take this path against the people of Indian country the Obama administration will be standing shoulder to shoulder with tribes and tribal organizations as they fight you on this. Thank you for your time, Chairman.”
Perhaps the most shocking outburst was aimed at committee member Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA). She criticized the title of the hearing for casting doubts on the process for acquiring trust land for Indians and condemned the Dawes Act as “racist and misguided.
"Divide and conquer has been the business of this subcommittee," Torres said.
Young was clearly incensed by Torres. "I just want to assure the lady that this committee never divides and conquers,” Young said when she finished reading her statement. “Whoever wrote that testimony, I want to talk to them a little later on," he said, ominously. "You did a good job of slamming the chairman,” he added, referring to himself in the third person. He then turned off his microphone but what he said to Torres could still be heard.
Torres said she’d be happy to come to his office to talk about her statement.
"Why don't you, instead of taking a shot at me in the committee?" Young said.
"You're the one taking a shot at the people in the audience," Torres replied.
At that, Young turned to face Torres, who was a few seats away to his left, with his right arm pointed toward her.
"Are you acting like you're shooting at me?" she asked. A video is available here.
Many Natives were appalled by Young’s tone and agenda in the hearing, but cheered by Washburn’s passionate rebuttal. A tribal leader who asked not to be named because he has to deal with Young said he’s been coming to Washington “for decades and I’ve never seen a head of the BIA stand up to Congress with so much courage to defend Indian country. Not one. On the other hand, I’ve also never seen anything like what Don Young did today!”
Another leader who also wanted to remain unnamed because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his standing with Young says the Congressman’s assault on federal recognition isn’t an isolated attack, and thinks there’s “more hostility trending” among tribes against other tribes being recognized.
He also suggested that some tribes may side with Young. “It’s a simple matter of do you want more mouths to feed at the table? It may sound crude or inhospitable, but if you’re a tribal leader and other tribes in the area are recognized, that essentially is going to come out of your hide because of federal dollars – it’s not like there’s new money being printed for you,” he said. He questioned the usefulness of confronting Congress on the issue.
The hearing lasted close to 90 minutes, and almost all of it was incendiary, and riveting, and important. It can viewed here.