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Tribal Sovereignty Disaster Legislation Introduced

Federal support is growing for tribes to have increased resources and lines of communication with the federal government when natural and other disasters strike.

Several tribal officials have complained in recent years that when snowstorms, floods, or other emergencies have occurred in their areas, they have faced a slow response from the federal government in ways that might not happen to other communities. Lack of direct communication, poor coordination, and slow outreach have all been cited by tribal leaders as reasons for the problem.

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-WV, said he heard from several tribal leaders about the need for increased federal assistance during a roundtable discussion he held in Washington in March. He currently serves as the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and was previously the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Indian affairs.

On May 24, Rahall introduced legislation that he said “reinforces Indian tribe sovereignty during major disasters and emergency situations.” The bi-partisan bill would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to authorize tribes to directly request the President of the United States to release federal resources.

“This has been a priority for Indian country for over a decade and upon enactment will treat Indian tribes as the sovereign governments that they are,” Rahall said in a press release. “As sovereign nations, Indian tribes should have a direct line to the Federal government to expedite aid and assistance during an emergency or major disaster.”

Tribal officials noted to Rahall that under current law, tribes that face a disaster or emergency situation must rely upon a state governor to ask the president for an emergency declaration, which in turn triggers federal resources. This process is harmful to tribal sovereignty, according to Indian leaders who say that as sovereign nations, tribes should be able to have a direct relationship with the federal government in emergency situations.

Rahall agreed with that assessment, saying that tribal leaders told him at his Native American Transportation, Infrastructure and Economic Development Roundtable that the current process threatens and undermines the principle of tribal sovereignty. “Current law is not only contrary to tribal sovereignty but it also requires the president to consider the state’s, not the tribe’s, ability to pay for the damages,” he said. “Under this legislation, tribes may still request the state to make the declaration on their behalf, but it provides another avenue for those tribes who want to exercise their sovereignty or where a state may be unable or unwilling to make a request on a tribe’s behalf.”

Draft legislation to address the problem was circulated to Indian country for comment soon after the roundtable was held in March. “Indian country will always have a prominent place at the table as I draft legislation that affects their lives and livelihoods,” Rahall said. “Indian tribes’ voices will be heard, their ideas will be incorporated, and they will be an equal partner in the process.”

The legislation is cosponsored by Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who serves as the Republican Co-Chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who serves as the Democratic Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.

According to Rahall’s office, letters of support have also been received from the National Congress of American Indians as well as other tribal organizations and individuals involved in emergency management.