Even a person only casually acquainted with Native Americans who viewed the May 15 hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in which U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell appeared for the first time could quickly comprehend that there are a plethora of issues for her to deal with on the tribal front.
Which is a big reason why some Indian affairs experts are questioning why some senators chose to push some issues tangentially related to Indian affairs—and some not related at all.
"It's disappointing that senators currently serving on the committee are neglecting their fiduciary obligations to the Indian tribe, and instead advancing their pet projects that are beyond the scope of the committee's responsibilities,” said Derek Bailey, former chair of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “It saddens me that some U.S. senators fail to comprehend this country's solemn obligations to the Anishinaabek [Native Americans].”
“I was disappointed, although it now seems commonplace to see senators push their in-state agendas at confirmation and introductory hearings,” added Chris Stearns, an Indian affairs lawyer with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker. “While some of the issues raised were not all that relevant to Indian affairs, what did come across in the Secretary’s testimony was the admission that the U.S. has a problem, and in particular that state of Indian education was embarrassing. Let’s hope that means the Department has taken the first step in recovery.”
Here are the top five off-topic moments:
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and the non-Indian safety issue
The vice-chair of the Senate Committee on Indian affairs started talking at one point about how he had sent Jewell several letters about a pressing safety issue. One might assume that it was a pressing Indian safety issue, given the topic of the hearing. Nope, his press office later told ICTMN—“It doesn't have to do with Indian safety issues.” Oh. It was all about the senator’s desire to see a pathway built and maintained on Moose-Wilson Road—a road somewhere in Wyoming, but one that has little to do with any tribes there.
Senators pushing conventional energy development
There are tribes that would benefit from more lax U.S. fossil fuel regulations, but non-tribal interests would be the biggest benefactors. Yet some senators, like Barrasso and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), made looser conventional energy regulation the centerpiece of their opening statements. Is that really the issue that matters most to tribes combatting poverty, poor health, and dreadful schools?
Senators pushing an environmental agenda
On the flip side of the fossil fuel debate, some senators used the hearing to score environmentalist-friendly brownie points. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), seemed to assume all Indians are supposed to be good stewards of the land just because they are Indian: "There's a lot of potential for renewable energy in Indian country,” he said. “Those technologies are good for the environment.” Good for the environment, but where was his argument that they will be good for Indians? Barrasso, for all his flaws, cautioned against going too far in pushing an environmental agenda: "We should be asking the tribes, not the Sierra Club or the policy wonks in some think tank or some university what they want to do with their homelands."
Sen. Jon Tester and the Montana wildfires
Yes, wildfires have recently threatened some western reservations and no doubt will continue to do so as this summer heats up. Tester (D-Mont.) took some precious time to talk about three fires currently burning in his state—getting Interior to spend more money on this problem was his obvious goal, and tribes could benefit if that happened. He also made it clear that Salish Kootenai, in particular, has been facing serious problems as a result of hazardous fire spending reductions, but this was but one anecdote in his discussion of Montana citizens facing the ravages of fire. After all that Montana fire talk, Franken couldn’t help but poke fun: “Wow…we have a fire burning now in Minnesota now, I understand,” he deadpanned.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and climate change
Could the new chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs be accused of being off-topic on Indian issues? For the most part, she was dead-on, focusing on tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and trust responsibility. But some Indian insiders worry that Indian education and fighting tribal poverty don’t appear to be her main focus. The concern is that she’s focused on the issues confronting the relatively well-off tribes in her home state, as well as coastal tribes that face unique circumstances compared to many land-locked tribes. So every minute that she talked about climate change caused a bit of uneasiness for tribal officials who see climate change as a problem, but believe it is far from the most pressing one on their lists.
Cantwell’s office said the new SCIA leader was pleased with the hearing overall. “She was appreciative of the conversation on a number of important issues,” said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the senator.