U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), elected to the House in 2010, has quickly found herself appointed the new ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, and she’s set to become a strong force on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian issues in the months to come. In an interview with Indian Country Today Media Network, she shared her thoughts on being idealistic on a clean Carcieri fix, dealing with the tough Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), and overseeing the Department of the Interior, which she says has “blown it” on some tribal issues.
What excites you about your new leadership position on the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs?
As you know, we’ve recently lost our two senators from Hawaii [Sen. Daniel Akaka retired in January and Sen. Daniel Inouye passed away in December], and they were big advocates for Indian country and Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. It is so thrilling to continue in their footsteps. There is also a very humbling part to all this. How it works in the House, for someone like myself, basically just in my second term—there are many others with seniority. I came in during the 112th Congress, so I was 13th in terms of seniority on the committees. Some of my colleagues stepped aside so that I could be ranking member of this subcommittee. They felt that these issues were so important to me that they stepped aside. That is an amazing and humbling experience.
Was this a role you planned on having so soon?
The only way I got an idea that this could happen was when Congressmen Lujan and Boren came up to me one day and said to me that they felt I should go for this position. I was stunned, because I don’t really have the seniority in the committee to be able to say it’s mine. They said they would help in any way, and they did. In addition, I had the support of Chairman Don Young (R-Alaska), who has also been very supportive of me during my time in Congress.
Rep. Young has a reputation of sometimes being quite tough, especially toward Democrats—it sounds like you have a strong relationship?
You know, I believe it is [a strong relationship]. I believe that when you look at not only Congressman Young, but at the history of Alaska and Hawaii, there’s always been a special bond there. I don’t know whether it’s because we’re the two non-contiguous states, or whether it’s the timing of when we both became states, or if there is some unwritten rule that we would work together, but it has not been a challenge, as others have had, to work with Congressman Young. Even as a new kid on the block, he always welcomed me. He’s been supportive.
Do you see Indian issues as being able to continue to be bipartisan in this politicized Congress?
I would like to think that, but the issue gets a bit cloudy when there’s the interjection of gaming into the equation. Whenever a tribe has issues with land exchanges and issues of tribal recognition – and of course we still haven’t cured the Carcieri issue – I always see somewhere lurking, a township, a county, or someone else objecting. The reason for their objection has tended to be on the gaming rights issue. When you see the Carcieri [2009 U.S. Supreme Court] decision, and the lacking ability the Department of the Interior now has to take land into trust for tribes, I feel like gaming is one of the issues that breaks it away from bipartisan consideration.
Since the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, tribal gaming has been the law of the land, but some politicians on both sides of the aisle want to tinker with that law. How do you personally feel about Indian gaming?
I feel that Indian gaming is part of the rights, which are inherent to the tribes and the recognition of them. I do not feel that we, Congress, should in any way step in or limit or redefine those rights.
You mentioned Carcieri and the gaming-related component there, but the case actually involves the Narragansett Tribe’s ability to get lands placed into trust for non-gaming related housing development. You recently sponsored a bill for a Carcieri fix—what makes you confident that your legislation will overcome the gaming-related hurdles?
I don’t know if confident is the exact word. It’s the same basic bill that Sen. Akaka offered when he chaired the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and I am hoping it will carry. The concern I have is that we have seen other Carcieri bills offered from the other side of the aisle, and they also haven’t been able to be successful. I am confident that my bill is the right version of the bill. Other versions have had elements of Native Alaskans also in there, and I think that that muddies the situation. There is still discussion on whether that would be the appropriate way to assist the Native Alaskans. I think what we need to do is join hands both on the Democratic and Republican sides, and move it out of committee—that will rely on Congressmen Markey, Young, and Doc Hastings. I think a clean Carcieri fix is the version that everyone can get behind and move forward.
Clarify for me, if you will, the Alaska Native provisions of your bill—what does it do there?
It doesn’t mention them. You have seen versions in the 112th that said a Carcieri fix would not apply to Alaska Natives. When I say my bill is a clean Carcieri fix, it just addresses the 1934 [Indian Reorganization Act] issue and what the Secretary of Interior has done subsequent to that.
There have been some folks who say if this is going to move, it might have to be compromised—maybe gaming will need to be limited for tribes in a particular region to appease certain politicians or other big-gaming tribes, or maybe off-reservation gaming will need to be limited. How do you feel about going down the compromise route?
I’m of the opinion that it should be clean and not compromised. I don’t believe it’s Congress’ place to impose that on any Indian tribe. The [Indian Reorganization Act] was never intended to be limited to applying to tribes only recognized after 1934. I don’t believe Congress should be able to dictate how tribes are going to be able to have their lands.
So if someone said Rep. Hanabusa is being too idealistic, that the perfect might be the enemy of the good here for many tribes, what would you respond?
I would say that if the tribes come forward and say they want their rights limited, then Congress would have the obligation to look at that. But that’s different than if we in Congress oppose it, trying to impose our will on the tribes.
In your role, you will be overseeing the Department of the Interior and what they do on Indian affairs—are there concerns on your radar that you want the Department to address?
I’ve always been someone who believes that Departments require strong oversight. This Department has a trust relationship with tribes, so Congress must work to ensure that it is carrying out its fiduciary duties properly. I have been concerned – even on the issues involving the Cobell settlement – you wonder, how did this come to be? And is this being executed properly? Because of the unique obligation the government has to Indian country, we have the obligation to ensure that the Department is acting in the right manner. If they hadn’t blown it in the past, we wouldn’t be in this position. They have brought the scrutiny upon themselves.
Do you think Democrats should be critical of the Obama administration, pushing for improvements for Indian country, such as increased economic development tribal initiatives?
I believe Democrats should be. I don’t think this needs to be a partisan issue. I’d like to think if the administration is incorrect on an issue, we should be there asking for accountability and transparency.
Sens. Akaka and Inouye spent much of their time in Congress working to achieve Native Hawaiian recognition, but they did not succeed. Are you going to be successful in that area?
We are going to have to hope that they have laid a sufficient groundwork to build on. A political relationship between Native Hawaiians and the United States is necessary in order for various entitlements and trusts, such as in education, at home to survive. I hope that the other Native peoples in the United States will assist us in moving it forward. I think we should ask for the recognition, and ask for the right of self-determination. We’ve had insertions in the legislation to prohibit gaming because that was necessary to get some support. We are different than Native Americans because we do not have the same historical treaty relationships with the federal government. So we do not have the same gaming rights, like those we discussed earlier. But we are a Native people, and we are entitled to the recognition.