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Rep. Rahall: Advocating congressional priorities for Indian country

With the new year comes a new Congress. The 108th Congress will face not only unfinished business from last year but a new agenda of issues as well. My democratic colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives have again bestowed upon me the honor of serving as the ranking democrat on the Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over legislation affecting Indian country. At this time, I would like to outline several priority issues I will be pursuing.

Trust fund reform and accountability

Just before Christmas, Interior Secretary Norton implemented a large, department-wide, reorganization of Indian programs, continuing this administration's tendency of taking controversial actions around major holidays when the media and public are less likely to take notice. Last year, Secretary Norton announced the formation of new office to handle trust-related functions outside of the BIA. At the time, I joined the outcry of opposition from Indian country to that proposal and called for government-to-government consultation with Indian tribes on the matter. Secretary Norton backed off and the Task Force of Indian Trust Funds was created which included meetings throughout the year. When the various Indian tribes pushed for the department to adopt trust standards to protect Indian trust assets, the department refused and the meetings broke down.

The Interior Department has claimed that much of its recent reorganization plan contains items agreed to with the Task Force, however, so little information has been given to tribes and Congress that it is impossible to know just what this reorganization will do to Indian trust management, trust fund reform, self-governance and self-determination grants, education funding within BIA, Indian roads programs, and all other Indian-related programs within the Department of the Interior. We in Congress and Indian country are being asked to take a huge leap of faith and trust the BIA that this reorganization will benefit Indian people and I am not comfortable with giving that faith without more information. As a ranking democratic member of the House Resources Committee, I believe it is of utmost urgency that the Committee conduct a series of hearings on what this reorganization will mean to all Indian programs within the Department of the Interior before the plan is implemented. We need to know if this costly reorganization will result in real reform or is just another expensive process of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Energy development

Last Congress, after working with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and the Intertribal Energy Network, I introduced the Tribal Energy Self-Sufficiency Act and worked to have many of its provisions included in legislation on national energy policy. While Congress failed to enact energy legislation before adjourning, it is imperative that the new Congress pass legislation to assist Indian tribes that want to develop their natural resources while maintaining control over protection of tribal sacred sites, cultural areas, and environmental concerns. Indian country has the highest percentage of homes without reliable electricity in the nation. This is unacceptable to me considering the fact that at least 10 percent of energy resources are on Indian lands. Additionally, Indian lands are often crisscrossed with electricity transmission and distribution lines which pass right by Indian homes that remain dark.

Sovereignty protection

I expect to once again spend a lot of effort battling legislative proposals designed to lessen and infringe upon tribal sovereignty rights. The last four Congresses have seen an increase of such amendments that do not have the support to pass on their own merit but are instead added to appropriations bills and other pieces of legislation moving through Congress. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hand down rulings which could have a negative effect on the ability of Indian tribes to protect their lands and pursue redress for breach of trust responsibility. We need to address these issues as soon as they arise.

Land fractionation

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Every day that goes by, the land fractionation problem throughout Indian country gets worse. Indian tribes and individual Indians have to fight through a bureaucratic morass to develop resources, deed land, and probate title after the death of a family member. Legislation was moved through the Senate last Congress and this Congress, the House needs to do its work to address this long-standing problem.

Health care

Reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) is past due and Congress must act in this first session of the 108th Congress to address this important matter. Passage of legislation comprised of recommendations from the Indian health community including tribal leaders, tribal health professionals, health care experts, Native American patients themselves, and the Indian Health Service, will be a priority for me this year. Native people continue to suffer death rates from some diseases at rates many times higher than the national population such as; Diabetes at 390 percent higher, tuberculosis at 500 percent higher and alcoholism at 740 percent higher.

The Indian health care network is comprised of reservation and traditional homeland-based hospitals, clinics, school health centers and health stations in very remote areas, and urban Indian health programs in major cities. This network is the primary source of medical care for over 1.3 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. The legislation we enact needs to include a greater role for Indian tribes in setting local priorities for health care delivery, and target those diseases which have been especially hard on the Native population, and provide needed funding.

Sacred lands

More and more Native American sacred lands are in danger of being destroyed in conjunction with the Bush Administration's quest for energy development. The federal government has wide latitude to grant the authority and issue leases for mining, foresting, and development in areas sacred to Native Americans. We have seen sacred lands - which were set aside for protection under the Clinton Administration - suddenly marked and cleared for development by the Bush Administration. Last Congress, I introduced the "Native American Sacred Lands Act" which would establish a process through which Indian tribes could petition the federal government to designate sacred lands as unsuitable for activities which could cause significant damage to the lands. The House Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill last fall but ran out of time to move the bill further. I will reintroduce the legislation and push for early consideration by the Committee and full House before any more damage is done to these invaluable areas. We must be willing to put the legal weight and muscle of the federal government behind protecting Native American sacred lands for future generations.

Indian reservation roads

This year Congress is expected to reauthorize federal highway and public transit programs by revisiting the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century, also known as TEA-21. In that law, I worked to more fully integrate what is called the Indian Reservation Road program into the overall transportation policy of this Nation. One of the provisions I included in TEA-21 was intended to apply "The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act" to this program to allow for direct tribal relationships with the Federal Highway Administration rather than having their funds doled out by the BIA after "administrative expenses." Unfortunately, the intent of this legislation has been thwarted by the administration. This year, as a senior member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I will again take up this cause and have been working with NCAI's TEA-21 Reauthorization Task Force on proposals it is advancing. The major elements of these proposals would dramatically increase the amount of federal highway construction dollars for Indian tribes, combat the current federal under-funding of road maintenance needs in Indian country and clearly provide the authority for direct tribal, government-to-government relationships with the Federal Highway Administration.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., serves as the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Resources, which oversees Native American issues. First elected to Congress in 1976 and serving his 13th term, Rahall specializes in national policies relating to energy, environment and transportation. Rahall is the second senior Democrat on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.