After a May 24 hearing that called into question fundamental tenets of tribal sovereignty and federal recognition of tribes, some U.S. House members and staffers are expressing concern that U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is ignoring Indian voices as he attempts to shrink tribal sovereignty and federal trust and treaty responsibilities. He is also unnerving colleagues on his side of the aisle who have long been engaged on Indian issues.
“There are slights being felt,” said one House staffer who asked not to be named because their boss, a Republican, sometimes works with Bishop. “The congressman’s decisions are causing some heartburn.”
Bishop’s Natural Resources Committee includes the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, chaired by U.S. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, chaired by U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID). All Natural Resources subcommittees also have U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK), former chairman of the Indian subcommittee, sitting on them as an emeritus member, so his views tend to be inserted into numerous conversations.
Republican and Democratic officials who work closely with members of both subcommittees said they were “surprised” and “confused” as to why Bishop encouraged the May 24 hearing, titled “Examining Impacts of Federal Natural Resources Laws Gone Astray,” to take place within Labrador’s oversight subcommittee without any tribal leaders invited to testify, and with seemingly little coordination with LaMalfa’s Indian subcommittee. The hearing ended up largely being an attack on components of tribal sovereignty and recognition related to the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, as well as the federal land-into-trust process for tribes at the Department of the Interior.
Bishop’s communications office had a clear hand in framing Labrador’s hearing, as it was Bishop’s main Natural Resources Committee – not Labrador’s subcommittee – that put out a press release prior to the hearing blasting the IRA and the Interior Department’s decisions related to placing land into trust for all federally recognized tribes, regardless of their recognition date. In the recent past, individual subcommittees have put out their own press releases.
“The IRA limited the [Interior] Secretary’s ability to put land into trust only to Indians who were members of tribes ‘now under federal jurisdiction’ as of the IRA’s enactment in 1934,” Bishop’s press release said. “However, despite this clear statutory prohibition, the federal government has routinely placed land into trust for members of tribes that were recognized after enactment of the IRA.”
Bishop’s release further quoted California’s Napa County Supervisor Diane Dillon as saying that bureaucrats within Interior have “abused” the IRA, “to completely strip state and local governments of their authority over local land use, with little to no regard for state and local concerns.” Dillon shared similar anti-tribal testimony at the hearing.
The only Indian witness who testified at the hearing was Kendra Pinto, a Navajo Nation citizen, who was asked to speak about oil and gas development. She was not warned by Bishop or Labrador to be prepared to discuss and defend the IRA or Interior’s current trust land policies.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), one of only two Native Americans in Congress, is said by those who know him to be perturbed by Bishop’s latest actions. Cole has attempted to explain treaty and trust obligations to House members like Bishop and Labrador, and he has introduced two versions of legislation in the current Congress that make clear that the IRA was intended to help all tribes, regardless of federal recognition date, to be able to have lands placed into trust for them by Interior.
Bishop is currently holding both of Cole’s bills in limbo.
“We’re not really sure what Congressman Bishop is up to,” said another House staffer regarding a recent letter Bishop sent to newly hired Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason that asked Cason to limit tribal off-reservation gaming and freeze Obama administration decisions related to tribal lands. Cason, when previously at Interior under President George W. Bush, often tried to curb tribal recognition, gaming, and sovereignty.
Bishop’s office has not responded to requests for comment on his handling of Indian affairs and the concerns of his colleagues.
Indians who have appeared before the current Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, have had positive things to say about LaMalfa’s leadership there.
Gary Davis, executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association (NAFSA), said the organization has been encouraged by LaMalfa's willingness to meet with stakeholders and learn about issues affecting Indian country at large, including tribes and tribal entities' involvement in the financial services sector.
“Our hope for Chairman LaMalfa is that he does everything in his power to elevate the importance of sovereignty across Indian country—from resource development on tribal lands to how tribes fit into the 21st Century digital economy,” said Davis, who personally met with LaMalfa in late February.
LaMalfa is attempting to do just that, telling ICMN that he considers his chairmanship of the Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs “one of my top priorities.”
“Specifically, I know there is a dire need for infrastructure improvements in tribal communities,” LaMalfa said. “As things stand, Indian Health Service facilities are not properly equipped for modern day medical practices. At the same time, tribal communities are also in need of updated water and sewage infrastructure, educational improvements, and more capital investment.”
LaMalfa is also expressing concern about efforts to cut funding to tribes, in an analogous way to what Cole has done while sitting on the House Appropriations and Budget Committees.
“The current level of funding does not give us much flexibility, so we have our work cut out for us,” LaMalfa said. “Northern California alone is home to more than a dozen federally recognized tribes. As chairman, it is my goal to increase funding for infrastructure improvements and work to achieve a better quality of life for the tribes in my district, as well as those across the United States.”
At the same time, LaMalfa now must contend with his boss, Rep. Rob Bishop, tinkering on Indian affairs issues in other Natural Resources subcommittees in ways that displease the very tribal constituents that LaMalfa appears to want to assist. On top of that, Young’s shadow in this area looms large, and he has never been known to hold back his strong opinions on Indian and Alaska Native issues. Young’s staff says the congressman vows to be supportive of LaMalfa’s efforts to assist tribes.
Said Davis, “While it would be impossible for anyone to replicate Chairman Young's decades of experience in and knowledge of federal Indian policy, Chairman LaMalfa is off to a good start and taking the right steps to ensure his subcommittee addresses the critical issues facing our communities.”