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The American Indian Empowerment Act: Setting the Record Straight

As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, I oversee most issues concerning Native Americans. Throughout my career, I have worked tirelessly to empower and improve the lives of America’s Native peoples, which is why I take umbrage with the cover of the March 28, 2012 edition of This Week From Indian Country Today. It referred to legislation I have introduced, the American Indian Empowerment Act of 2011 (H.R. 3532), as “The Great Land Rush,” a term that misrepresents my intent and, quite frankly, comes across as an inflammatory attempt to stir up opposition to the bill. In addition, the article states that “DOI [Department of the Interior] officials are lining up against [H.R. 3532].”

All along, I have maintained that this legislation is a starting point for a discussion on where federal Indian policy should go in order to increase tribal self-governance. It is not yet in its final form. The only way to construct a federal Indian policy that moves towards eliminating the federal government and letting tribes make decisions governing their lands, is by working with the tribes themselves. This effort requires gathering input – something I, along with my staff have been doing since I became Chairman.

We have gathered input from many tribal leaders across the country, one being Seneca Nation of New York President Rob Porter, who is a fierce defender of his tribe’s lands and sovereignty. While testifying at a recent hearing on this legislation, President Porter had this to say when speaking about my legislation, “[I]t would do this by enabling Indian nations and tribes to voluntarily convert some or all their existing tribal lands from tribal trust lands held by the United States to tribal restricted fee status held by the tribal government and thereby enjoy the enhanced flexibility that attaches to restricted fee land holdings. That flexibility should produce great savings in time and cost that otherwise would burden development on tribal trust land.”

The March 28, 2012 cover.

The March 28, 2012 cover.

It is hard to believe President Porter, and other tribal leaders who have expressed interest in discussing this bill, would support a piece of legislation that would open Indian lands to settlement as implied by the “Great Land Rush” title.

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As to Interior officials reportedly “lining up” against the bill, the hearing testimony tells a different story. The Interior Department Official testifying in the Subcommittee, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Del Laverdure said his Department “supports the concept of tribes having greater control over their lands, including innovations regarding the use of restricted fee lands, we have concerns with H. R. 3532 as currently drafted.”

Again, a far cry from the impression left by This Week From Indian Country Today’s cover.

I have made no bones about what my intent is – I want to see federal Indian policy move in a completely new direction. That direction includes returning power back to the tribes and allowing them – at their sole discretion – to remove the Federal government from overseeing their lands. It is my belief this will lead to the improvement of the quality of life for America’s tribes. The idea of empowering tribes and finally getting the Federal Government out of their way is a concept I will not compromise on. The lands that our tribes occupy are rightfully theirs and if they want to develop those lands for the betterment of their people – then the Federal Government should not stand in their way as it has so often done.

I recognize the concerns regarding current language of my bill. This is why I have sought constructive criticism to identify legitimate problems in H.R. 3532 and to resolve them. But to imply that there is widespread opposition to what I am trying to accomplish is simply inaccurate and does not tell the whole story. These concerns will be worked out as the legislative process moves along, but there is one thing I will not compromise regardless of what the Administration or supporters of the status quo say - America’s tribes and Alaskan Natives need greater control and more flexibility over their lands and that is precisely what H.R. 3532 will do.

Serving his 20th term, Congressman for all Alaska Don Young is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.