Taking the chair's position for the first time in the 115th Congress, Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), lowered the opening gavel on February 8 for the year’s inaugural business meeting and oversight hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA).
Sen. John Hoeven presented his ambitious agenda that comprised two major orders of business: the consideration of and vote on nine Senate bills covering a broad range of Indian topics, and a hearing on the effectiveness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Indian country.
The opening remarks, delivered by Sen. John Hoeven, expressed hope that the committee's historically bipartisan nature would continue to guide its decision making. This is necessary, in Sen. John Hoeven’s estimation, to ensure that Indian-related bills, like the ones highlighted during the hearing, get through the Senate and the House expeditiously. These bills, Sen. John Hoeven continued, were "too important" for Indian country to let languish. Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), the new vice-chair of SCIA, and other committee members echoed the sentiments of Sen. John Hoeven.
The nine Senate bills presented for consideration were:
- S. 39, to extend the federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, and for other purposes;
- S. 63, to clarify the rights of Indians and Indian tribes on Indian lands under the National Labor Relations Act;
- S. 91, to amend the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992 to facilitate the ability of Indian tribes to integrate the employment, training, and related services from diverse Federal sources, and for other purposes;
- S. 140, a bill to amend the White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT) Water Rights Quantification Act of 2010 to clarify the use of amounts in the WMAT Settlement Fund;
- S. 245, to amend the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self Determination Act of 2005, and for other purposes;
- S. 249, to provide that the pueblo of Santa Clara may lease for 99 years certain restricted land, and for other purposes;
- S. 254, to amend the Native American Programs Act of 1974 to provide flexibility and reauthorization to ensure the survival and continuing vitality of Native American languages;
- S. 269, to provide for the conveyance of certain property to the Tanana Tribal Council located in Tanana, Alaska, and to the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation located in Dillingham, Alaska, and for other purposes; and
- S. 302, the John P. Smith Act, or the Tribal Infrastructure and Roads Enhancement and Safety Act (TIRES Act).
Of these, the John P. Smith Act, evoked a sentimental reaction amongst attendees when introduced by Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY), the immediate past chair of SCIA. The senator noted that "Big John Smith," the unofficial dean of Indian country transportation and head of the Eastern Shoshone/Northern Arapaho Tribal Transportation Department for 27 years, passed away the week before the hearing, regretfully, without seeing this bill passed.
Similarly, the recent death of Little Shell Tribal Councilmember Shawn Gilbert overshadowed the passing of S. 39, which provides for federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, yet has suffered in government bureaucracy for decades. Federal recognition had been approved in 2000, then was revoked in 2009, and has been in flux since that time. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) said during the hearing that he intended to see that although he lost his fight for his life, Gilbert "[didn 't] lose his fight for his people.” Calling the Little Shell situation "Exhibit A for how broken [the federal recognition] process actually is," Daines, joined by Sens. James Lankford (R-OK) and Jon Tester (D-MT), voiced rather vigorously that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) needs a much more well-defined, streamlined process for federal recognition.
All nine bills were passed unanimously in block, except for three "no's" on S.63 (Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Catherine Cortez (D-NV).
Moving on to the oversight hearing on "Emergency Management in Indian Country: Improving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Federal-Tribal Relationship with Indian Tribes," Sen. John Hoeven commented that this was a timely conversation given the impending spring thaw. Like all communities, tribes face a spectrum of disasters that cost them lives and livelihood every year, most of them natural in the making. Floods, wild fires, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes, coastal erosion, snow, toxic spills, and thawing permafrost create situations where tribal or state resources are quickly overwhelmed and federal assistance is required.
Until the 2013 Stafford Act, tribes were required to go through the state to seek federal assistance. Since then, they have been able to solicit emergency resources and funding directly from the President of the United States. Critical challenges remain, however.
While tribal witnesses agreed that the Stafford Act was decidedly a huge step forward for tribes, several said it did nothing to clarify the misconception that FEMA is the lead agency or lead coordinator for all disasters, and that figuring out who is tends to be exasperating. Witnesses thought that the best approach was "all hands on deck," with all agencies available to them, and FEMA acting as response coordinator.
A second major concern for tribal officials was timely response by FEMA, with both resources and funding lagging on disaster assistance requests by months or years. Tribal officials stated that this had a pronounced adverse effect on economic recovery because tribes simply didn't have the money to finance recovery.
Alex Amparo, representing FEMA, stated that tribes' inability to value their losses slows the process, but that they were working with tribes to improve this problem.
The cost of grants also impedes tribes' ability to recover. Tribes lose a greater percentage of funding if states or other agencies act as administrators for a disaster relief grants. Witnesses encouraged FEMA to examine this issue closely.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye also raised the need to define "disaster." "When is it disastrous enough for FEMA to respond?" he asked. He argued that the current monetary threshold of damages is too high because it is based on the concentration of damage densely populated cities rather than in a sparsely populated, widespread rural areas. He argued for a $250,000 threshold.
Cody Desautel, Natural Resources Director Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, focused his comments on requiring FEMA to explain why requests for assistance to tribes are denied. In the absence of an explanation, tribes don't know what to do next to get help, so this area needed serious attention, he testified.
Overall, witnesses expressed support for newly issued FEMA pilot guidance, stating collectively that they believe that the next three pilot years would flush out more issues—and answers for tribes.