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The first U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing of the 117th Congress took place Feb. 24, spotlighting Native Hawaiian, Alaska Native and Native American leaders' priorities.

“I want to be clear that today’s hearing isn’t a ‘check-the-box’ exercise. It’s a real opportunity for this committee to chart a path forward, by listening to and learning from Native leaders, for the next two years and beyond,” said Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz.

Speakers from the panel included National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp, Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians President Leonard Forsman, Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board of Trustees Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsay and Alaska Federation of Natives President and CEO Julie Kitka.

Vice Chairman and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, “My hope is that my colleagues come to understand the differences and distinctions, the great diversity among Native American peoples ... we all recognize that this country, the United States, has a unique trust judiciary obligation to American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, wherever they are.”

Topics ranged from supporting tribal economies, COVID-19 relief and increasing funding for Bureau of Indian Affairs police enforcement.

Schatz asked the tribal leaders what their top priorities were from the COVID-19 relief bill.

Sharp said to have the $20 billion relief for tribes to “be viewed as a floor,” and to have more available if necessary.

Forsman added that he wants support for tribal economies and the continued investment in tribal healthcare services.

Lindsay similarly said the economy well-being is important, and to include health care programs in the relief package

Kitka said the quality of housing, expansion of broadband for telemedicine and the New Markets Tax Credit were priorities for her.

Committee member and Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto asked about the tribe's access to health care outside of the Indian Health Service such as spiritual health.

“Accessing health care beyond IHS is so critically important for our tribal nations and our citizens because if you look at a western medicine way of making and delivering health care to our citizens, that falls so inadequately short of us meeting the needs of our community,” Sharp responded.

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Forsman said the tribes in the Northwest have an adequate health service system, and Kitka said that she would still like to see services utilized and extended for Alaska Natives.

Sharp later said tribes need to decide how to conduct their mental health services and to be able to implement traditional options.

Kitka shared the same sentiment and said, “To use the strength of our culture to heal our own people.”

North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven asked Sharp if the lack of BIA police officers have a negative impact on crime on reservations.

Sharp said the rate of pay is affecting officers from staying on the reservations and an increase of investment would help.

Kitka added that there needs to be a reliable source of funding for public safety rather than grants. But she is grateful for the passing of Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act.

“Public safety is a huge issue for us and we’ve even ventured to say there’s a nexus between public safety and national security, at least in Alaska,” she said.

Near the end, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell addressed the inequity of urban Indian health clinics that don’t receive full funding.

“I don’t see the difference in the trust responsibility we have, whether it’s delivered at a hospital in Montana, or whether it’s delivered at a Seattle Indian health port. It’s the same to me, it’s the same population, it’s the same responsibility,” she said.

It concluded with New Mexico Sen. Ben Ray Lujan mentioning federal agencies' lack of coordination with tribe infrastructure, the issue of broadband and if increasing the money allocated through the child tax credit would help Native families during the pandemic.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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