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Washington in brief

Housing bill could be lone comprehensive stand-alone Indian law of 110th Congress

Pending the signature of President Bush, the reauthorized Native American Housing and Self-Determination Assistance Act is poised to become the only stand-alone law affecting all tribes to pass the 110th Congress.

The two-year Congress has been delayed in taking its final recess by the financial crisis and $700 billion bailout request of the presidential administration.

National American Indian Housing Council Chairman Marty Shuravloff credited Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., chief sponsor of H.R. 2786, with guiding the bill through both chambers of Congress, relying on the vital support of Sen. Byron Dorgan in the Senate. Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, stated in a release that the NAHASDA reauthorization is more than a reauthorization, but an enhancement – and more than a housing bill to Native people. “It will give tribes more authority over their own lands and truly help build stronger communities in Indian country.”

Shuravloff hailed the “incredible dedication” of the entire Congress in confronting the dire housing needs of Native America, as recounted in an NAIHC paper released on the occasion of the law’s passage Sept. 27. He also singled out Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., for consistent support and a constructive amendment.

Shuravloff and Paul Lumley, the NAIHC executive director, saved their warmest praise for an “outpouring of support” from tribal leaders and tribal housing advocates in the “final push” to pass the bill.

“We couldn’t have accomplished this without them,” said Lumley in the NAIHC release.

The intent of the original NAHASDA, in 1996, was to free up tribal self-determination through flexibility with federal housing funds, a goal achieved in part and extended by the reauthorization and its major amendments.

Big changes upcoming at NMAI

At a reception Sept. 23, Kevin Gover announced a couple of changes to look for at the National Museum of the American Indian over the next few years.

The executive director, senior staff and “people throughout the museum” have taken a look around. “And what we’ve discovered is our museum isn’t particularly friendly to children. It’s not that we don’t like them; it’s not that our people are rude to them. But we just didn’t think about it enough. So a lot of our exhibits are very much oriented toward adults, and we need to do something about that, because a museum really should be fun. And as you can see, we’re very serious about the museum. It’s very dignified, it’s very elegant. Now we need to make it fun, too ... a more enjoyable experience for young people and families.”

In particular, Gover said, a third-floor room will be changed completely into a family area, where children will be able to take part in interactive games and other learning activities that will enrich their experience. “Because one thing we know is that adults may drag their kids to the museum, but what we need is for the kids to be dragging the adults back.”

In addition, Gover said the museum’s history section, known as “Our People,” will be replaced. “We will be taking that gallery down and replacing it with an exhibition we call ‘Treaties.’ Treaties ... are critical to the engagement between the United States and the tribes and we think it’s a subject matter, a platform, that allows us to discuss anything, frankly.

“Even for those tribes that couldn’t have treaties, there’s a story there. In California, for example, where there are no ratified treaties, treaties were negotiated, and the tribes did give up vast plots of land. ... So the tribes never got the benefit of the bargain that they made with the United States. We need to tell that story.”

Virginia tribes are first in line for legislated recognition in 2009

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Virginia sent its varsity lawmakers to Capitol Hill Sept. 25, where they urged the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to lead the fight in conferring federal recognition on tribes that have been recognized by England, the Virginia colony and the state commonwealth for more than 300 years.

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, Sen. Jim Webb, Rep. James Moran and SCIA Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Democrats all, reached consensus on at least three points: tribal recognition through the appointed administrative process is preferable to legislative action, but the process is “broken” almost beyond repair and Virginia tribes have been set back in their attempts to prove tribal status by a 1924 racist state law that decreed all citizens must be identified as “white” or “colored” – leaving Indians out of account, as if they had vanished from the historical record. The law was part of a broader “anti-miscegenation” effort to police sexual contact between blacks and whites.

Dorgan said he will schedule a fuller hearing on it early next year, in the 111th Congress. Committee staff time has been at a premium, he added.

The Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa in Montana, the Muscogee Nation of Florida and the Grand River Bands of Ottawa in Michigan also sent representatives. They testified to the marathon, ongoing struggles of their people with the process Dorgan described as “broken.”

Lee Fleming, director of the Interior Department’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment, described a staff whose time is also at a premium. The department has taken action in the past year to “expedite and clarify the process ... so that all groups seeking acknowledgment can be processed and completed within a set timeframe.”

Fleming said the Florida Muscogee are “fifth in line” for OFA review and evaluation of their evidence under seven mandatory criteria for federal recognition; the Grand River Bands, ninth; and the Little Shell are due for a final determination early in 2009. The Virginia tribes have not completed petitions documenting an ability to meet the seven federal criteria, he said, a fact proponents attribute to the state’s Racial Integrity Law of 1924, on the books until 1967.

“It is no wonder that these Indian communities became much harder for researchers to find,” said Helen C. Rountree, professor emeritus at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. The tribes at issue are the Chickahominy and its Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and Nansemond.

NIGC makes classification withdrawal official

 National Indian Gaming Commission Chairman Phil Hogen has formally withdrawn proposed classification standards in Class II and Class III gaming, a step strongly urged on him by numerous Class II gaming tribes. Hogen had previously “set aside” the standards amid controversy.

Class II gaming tribes, especially in Oklahoma, feared the standards could be taken off the shelf and put to use if they weren’t formally renounced. Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman David Qualls said he wouldn’t rest easy until NIGC withdrew the standards.

By trying to draw a “bright line” between Class III games of chance under tribe-state compacts, and Class II electronic bingo by tribes without a state compact, the classification standards had threatened the Class II tribal gaming industry with billion-dollar losses, according to multiple studies.

In his official notice of the withdrawal, filed Sept. 24, Hogen foretold other emergent threats. Among them: “If states perceive that tribes are playing Class III games under the guise of Class II gaming undefined, they may expand legalized gaming within their own borders, as the state of Alabama is doing now. Indian gaming operations located far from population centers will be greatly harmed as a result. Patrons will spend their money downtown and closer to home rather than driving out to the reservation.”

Hogen also served notice that NIGC still considers “one-touch” bingo games electronic facsimiles of games of chance, rather than Class II games. “Going forward, the commission intends to address this and other classification issues through a combination of training, technical assistance, and enforcement actions.”

Congress will be watching. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the Natural Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, called the defunct standards “reckless proposed regulations that would have caused excessive economic harm to ... Class II tribes.”

In a written response to the withdrawal, he repeated the assertions of a spirited July letter that castigated NIGC for lack of consultation with tribes in developing the standards. “I trust that Indian tribes will be consulted regarding the future need for, and development of, any regulations that affect their livelihood.”

U.S. attorney firings get a special prosecutor

The last of four reports on the Justice Department’s firing of nine U.S. attorneys in December 2006 has led U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to appoint a special prosecutor, the Justice Department’s Nora Dannehy.

The report found no illegal action by discredited former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, but laid “primary responsibility” for the “unprecedented removal” at his feet and found that he “abdicated” his duty to safeguard the department’s independence from partisan politics. The report reveals a scarcely veiled frustration over the refusal of administration personnel to come forward with more information on the politicized decision-making process that produced the firings.

The report confirmed widespread indications, including testimony before Congress, that devotion to justice in Indian country ended the career of at least one U.S. attorney, contributed to the termination of another, and slated former U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Thomas Heffelfinger (now a partner with Best & Flanagan in Minneapolis) for similar treatment before he resigned without knowing he had been singled out.

Another, former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, received phone calls from Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson, both New Mexico Republicans, about the filing of charges against Democratic candidates prior to election day. Iglesias ignored their promptings, Domenici went to the White House and the DoJ, and Iglesias lost his job, the report recounts.

Mukasey empowered Dannehy to investigate for 18 months.