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GOP House creates new Indian subcommittee

Rob Capriccioso, Today staff
1/7/11

WASHINGTON – With Republican U.S. House of Representatives settling in to their leadership, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, has been chosen to chair a newly formed subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs.

Washington state Rep. Doc Hastings, the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, officially announced Young’s appointment at the end of December. Hastings said the subcommittee will focus on many tribal issues, including strengthening economies. He added that Young has been a strong advocate for Alaska Native issues during his now 20 terms in office.

The subcommittee is expected to oversee a variety of tribal issues, including gaming, Interior Department oversight, Indian claims against the government, and tribal resource management.

Marie Howard, former Democratic staff director of the Office of Indian Affairs of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said it was “good news for Indian country” that Young will be in charge as chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs during the 112th Congress.

“Chairman Young is a strong advocate for Native issues, and he knows how to work on these important issues in a bi-partisan manner,” Howard said. “I am proud of the accomplishments made working with Mr. Young and his staff over the years.”

That said, she added: “It is much more important who is in charge of Indian Affairs on the House Natural Resources Committee than whether or not there is a specific subcommittee dedicated to Native issues.”

Having recently retired after serving as a staffer on the Natural Resources Committee for 27 years through more than 13 Congresses – both in the majority and in the minority and with a dedicated subcommittee and without – Howard knows this arena quite well.

“Through much of the time Chairman Mo Udall, D-Ariz., was in charge, we did not have a dedicated subcommittee, yet he championed an enormous amount of landmark Indian legislation,” she recalled. “The same can be said for Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) and Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W. Va.). The truth is that it was their support and dedication to tribal sovereignty that resulted in strong oversight and passage of important bills for Indian country and not the existence of a subcommittee.”

Of great concern to Howard is how the agenda of the new Republican House will impact American Indians and Alaska Natives. She noted that one of their first acts is scheduled to be voting to repeal the national health care legislation, which includes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

“This could have a devastating effect on Native communities,” Howard said.

She also noted that it is not yet known who the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee will be, however, the new incoming ranking Democratic member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has a long history in the House of supporting Indian legislation.

Chris Stearns, a former Democratic counsel to the House Committee on Natural Resources who worked on the committee when Young was the ranking member and later chairman, said Young’s appointment looks like “a pretty big win” for Indian country, especially Alaska.

“Young’s grasp of Native issues is unmatched on the Republican side of the aisle, and the expansion of his subcommittee’s jurisdiction to include Alaska Native issues gives him a powerful perch to work from, or at least bottle up any of the mischief the Republican leadership might cook up,” Stearns said.

Alaska Natives have generally expressed hope regarding Young’s appointment, with Alaska Federation of Natives President Julie Kitka telling local press that she expects the subcommittee to act as “a clearinghouse” for Alaska Native and American Indian issues that come up in Congress.

“Those matters could include gaming, land trust for Indian tribes and hunting rights, as well as social and health issues such as suicide,” Kitka told the Anchorage Daily News.

The Subcommittee on Native American Affairs has had a storied past, having been established by then-Chairman George Miller, then-chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources at the start of the 103rd Congress in 1993.

Next, Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico was named chairman and served for two years. During that tenure, from 1993-1994, the subcommittee passed a record number of national Native American bills, including the Indian Tribal Justice Act, the American Indian Agricultural Resource Management Act, the Federally Recognized Indian Tribe List Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994, the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act, the Tribal Self-Governance Act, the Indian Self-Determination Contract Reform Act, the Indian Dams Safety Act, and the Catawba Settlement Act.

In more recent years, when Rahall served as Resources chair last Congress, the movement of Indian bills and the holding of American Indian and Alaska Native hearings was dictated by Rahall at the full committee level.

With the subcommittee structure now back in place, it’s possible that Indian issues in the House might get more short-term attention, especially when Young chooses to focus the spotlight on a particular area, but they still must be able to clear the full committee to earn their stripes.

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