Indian Country Today
It’s been a little more than 100 days since the five Indigenous members were sworn into the 117th Congress. A lot has happened since then.
In January, millions watched as a mob violently charged the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection. Two weeks later, President Joe Biden became the nation’s 46th president. He began a series of presidential actions hours after his inauguration to honor the nation’s relationship to tribal nations. Then in February members of Congress voted to impeach former President Donald Trump a second time.
Simultaneously, key breakthroughs took place on the coronavirus front. The first vaccine doses began being administered on Jan. 4 to healthcare and other essential workers after more than 300,000 Americans died from the virus.
Indian Country and nation reached a notable milestone when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland took office in March, the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.
The five Indigenous voting members of Congress all serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and a majority come from the Republican party. Reps. Tom Cole, Markwayne Mullin, Sharice Davids, Yvette Herrell and Kai Kahele have worked through the national and state hurdles of the last few months.
On major pieces of legislation like the American Rescue Plan, the Indigenous members of Congress voted along party lines, with the Republicans opposing the legislation and the Democrats supporting it.
On other bills affecting Indian Country, many Indigenous Congress members have crossed party lines to advocate for tribal communities.
Here’s a recap of the lawmakers’ past few months, organized by seniority:
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, Republican, was reelected to the House to serve his 10th term for the state’s 4th district.
Cole, Chickasaw Nation, has been busy over the last four months introducing two resolutions in the House and co-sponsoring 98 pieces of legislation. One of those bills, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, passed the house and is being heard in the Senate. The bipartisan bill requires the department of labor to address workplace violence in healthcare sectors.
He also attached his name to a bill with a bipartisan group of 335 lawmakers calling for three congressional gold medals to be awarded to Capitol police who protected the Capitol during the insurrection. It has also passed the House and the Senate is looking at it.
Of the 98 bills Cole signed onto, three apply to Indian Country: the Native American Child Protection Act, Urban Indian Health Parity Act and a resolution urging the International Olympic Committee to restore the 1912 Olympic records of Sac and Fox citizen Jim Thorpe as the sole winner of two gold medals.
On Tuesday, Cole also introduced legislation to authorize the Chickasaw and Cherokee nations and the state of Oklahoma to find an agreement without federal involvement as a response to the McGirt Supreme Court decision last summer.
Cole continues to serve as co-chair of the Native American caucus, a position he’s held since 2009. He sits on the rules and appropriations committees and three subcommittees, and is a member of 37 caucuses.
Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma
Following Cole in seniority is Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin, Cherokee, who began his 5th term serving Oklahoma’s 2nd district.
Mullin hit the ground running by sponsoring five bills and co-sponsoring 66 since January. One of the bills that passed the House is the Protecting Indian Tribes from Scams Act which requires the federal trade commission to report on unfair or deceptive practices that target Native communities. Mullin also co-sponsored the bill, along with Cole, that honors Capitol police who served during the insurrection.
Mullin supported the resolution designating May 5, 2021, as a national day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. He also joined Cole in cosponsoring a resolution to honor Thorpe’s Olympic achievements.
Outside of the halls of Congress, Mullin visited with Native leaders. In March, he met with five Muskogee Nation officials to discuss the tribe’s vaccine distribution and pandemic care. Over the last few months, tribal nations have reported stellar vaccination rates — with some tribes vaccinating large numbers of tribal citizens fast enough to give extra doses to non-Native people related to tribal citizens, working for the tribe, and living near tribal lands.
The Oklahoma lawmaker visited the first tribally affiliated medical school on tribal land in the country. He met with students at the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and posed for a photo.
Mullin co-chairs the Indian Health Service task force and vice-chairs of the Native American caucus. He serves on the House energy and commerce committee, and three subcommittees. In addition, he serves on 24 other caucuses.
Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas
Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, fought for and won a second term in the state’s 3rd district.
Davids, Ho-Chunk, met with White House senior staff to discuss policy priorities in the American Jobs plan in April. She says a key focus has been responding to the health and economic crisis made by COVID-19.
“That’s why I voted to pass the American Rescue Plan, which includes the largest infusion of resources in history to Native communities, who we know have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” Davids said. “I will continue working to ensure tribal communities have the support they need to not only recover from COVID-19, but to build back better than before. I look forward to amplifying the voices of Indian Country and advancing priorities at the federal level.”
In March, Davids met with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House to discuss transportation and infrastructure needs.
In the early months of her second term, she focused on introducing four bills and supporting 61 others since taking office. Some of those bills have passed the house and are being heard in the Senate, including the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aiming to close the wage gap. She also supported the same bill as Cole and Mullin to honor the Capitol police officers.
Davids co-chairs the Native American caucus with Cole. She also serves on four committees: transportation and infrastructure, small business, joint economic and house steering and policy committees. She also sits on six subcommittees and 18 caucuses.
Rep. Yvette Herrell of New Mexico
Rep. Yvette Herrell comes in as the first Native woman Republican elected to Congress.
The Cherokee citizen started her first term representing New Mexico’s 2nd district by sponsoring five bills and co-sponsored 149 pieces of legislation. One of the bills proposes to designate an Albuquerque U.S. postal service location as the “Jose Hernandez post office building.” It was originally sponsored by Haaland and aims to honor Hernandez, a 47-year-old letter carrier who was murdered on the job two years ago. The bill has passed the House and sits in the Senate.
In February, Herrell’s office announced five federal grants totalling at $8 million through the Indian Housing Block Grant Program. “The Indian Housing Block Grant Program provides critical resources that support affordable housing in Tribal communities,” Herrell said in a statement. “I’m excited to announce more than $8 million will be available to Pueblos and Tribes in the second congressional district this fiscal year.”
Herrell serves on two committees: natural resources and oversight and reform committees, as well as four subcommittees. She also serves on three caucuses and is the only Indigenous member of Congress who isn’t a member of the Native American caucus.
Rep. Kai Kahele of Hawaii
Democratic Rep. Kai Kahele, Native Hawaiian, is also a new face in Congress who represents Hawaii’s 2nd district.
In February, Kahele delivered remarks on the House floor to honor Mahina ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi or Hawaiian language month.
“Colleagues, my culture has served as a guiding light throughout my entire life, a light that has survived because of the many kupuna, our elders, who protected this light and who protected our Native Indigenous language,” Kahele said on the House floor.
Kahele honored the contributions of Native Hawaiian women the following month and included four matriarchs who reigned in the 1800s before the sovereign Hawaiian kingdom was overthrown.
He also reintroduced the Remove the Stain Act, if enacted, that would revoke the 20 medals of honor from soldiers who carried out the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.
"I'm proud to introduce the Remove the Stain Act in the House. Our bill rescinds the Medal of Honor from soldiers who shamefully massacred unarmed Lakota men, women and children at Wounded Knee. This horrific act of violence must not be rewarded. The Remove the Stain Act is legislation that is long overdue and is one step toward acknowledging a horrible wrong in our country’s history,” Kahele said in a statement.
Kahele has introduced two bills since January and co-sponsored 116 pieces of legislation. He is a co-sponsor of the bill to reauthorize the violence against women act which passed the house in March. He also signed onto the bill with Cole, Mullin and Davids, honoring Capitol police officers. Kahele also co-sponsored the bill to protect seniors from emergency scams.
Kahele serves as vice chair of the Native American caucus. He also serves on the transportation and infrastructure committee and the house armed services committee, along with four subcommittees. In addition, Kahele serves on nine caucuses.
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