Retiring Senator and head of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) addressed the National Congress of American Indians 69th Convention in late October in a video that could be seen as his swan song. Akaka said he and his staff won't stop working to pass a clean <i>Carcieri</i> fix and other important legislation during the lame duck sessions.

Akaka to Push Passage of Carcieri and More in Lame Duck Session

Gale Courey Toensing
11/12/12

Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka and Loretta Tuell, his chief of staff and chief counsel on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said they won’t stop working to pass a clean Carcieri fix and other important legislation during the lame duck session until the final pounding of the gavel closes the 112th Congress. Akaka addressed Indian country by video at the National Congress of American Indians 69th Convention in late October. The video was his swan song to NCAI: After 36 years in Congress – 14 in the House and 22 in the Senate – Akaka, 88, will retire at the end of the 112th Congress. He is the country’s first Native Hawaiian senator and the only Chinese American member of the United States Senate. A champion of Indian country, Akaka’s video speech held attendees at the conference silently engrossed. As always, Akaka began his talk by extending his aloha to the NCAI leaders, members and the NCAI President Jefferson Keel. He told the audience that he has focused the committee’s work around strengthening the identities of Native peoples and their ability to protect their homelands – two themes that were woven throughout his and Tuell’s speeches.

Loretta Tuell

The amendment to the IRA would clarify that the Secretary of the Interior Department has the authority to put land into trust for all federally acknowledgment tribes, “fixing” a misguided February 2009 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Bills that don’t pass during the duck session expire. If the Carcieri fix or Native Hawaiian bills die during the lame duck session of the current 112th Congress, legislators would have to start from scratch and introduce new bills during the 113th Congress, which is scheduled to begin on January 3, 2013. Akaka stressed that he is “determined” to pass the Carcieri fix during the current Congress and he said there is support to pass it. “I’m happy to report that Majority Leader Harry Reid is committed to working with me to ensure the Carcieri fix is enacted and signed into law by President Obama this year,” Akaka said. Reid told Indian Country Today Media Network that a Carcieri fix is indeed one of Akaka’s priorities and “I would like to help him with some of those things,” Reid said. A Carcieri fix is “something we should do,” Reid said. He talked about his home state of Hawaii with great affection and about the need for solidarity among the Indigenous Peoples of the United States. “In Hawaii we’re lucky to bring together the traditions and wisdom from the many cultures that make up our community for the benefit of all peoples, … More than ever it is critical that all Alaska Natives, American Indians and also Native Hawaiians stand together and move forward together to advance Native self-determination,” Akaka said. He talked about the cultural identity provided to the state of Hawaii by the Native Hawaiian tradition of doing things with aloha – with love and with respect. He urged American Indian leaders “to call upon the cultural values of our ancestors to guide our decisions” and to encourage young people to remember and draw courage from those values. “We must remember that we are just one in a long line of people working to ensure that our life ways, our languages, our cultures and our peoples continue for generations to come,” Akaka said. With Akaka and several other seasoned legislators leaving Congress, “a lot of institutional knowledge is leaving,” Tuell told the NCAI members, “so your job just got a little harder in educating the new people about who we are and how we move forward.” Tuell, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, will also leave the government at the end of this Congress after 20 years of work in Indian Affairs. “It has been an honor and a privilege to serve under the leadership of Chairman Akaka. I remain fully committed to working to advance the Chairman’s top legislative priorities in the final days of the 112th Congress. As for the future, I look forward to exploring any opportunity that allows me to continue to serve Native people,” Tuell told ICTMN in an email. At the NCAI convention, Tuell reviewed the committee’s work during its 35 years of existence – over 950 hearings, 350 business meetings and some 300 public laws passed. “That’s a big deal,” Tuell said. “It shows that when you have a committee that works for you, you can get things done and I encourage you to always encourage and maintain the SCIA and likewise in the House. It’s the right way to address the trust responsibilities the U.S. has to Indian tribes.” During the current Congress, the SCIA referred 50 bills and reported 25 bills out of the committee, held 30 oversight hearings, 19 round tables, listening sessions and briefings, eight legislative hearings, nine business meetings, and approved the nomination of Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. The Washburn nomination was approved in seven days. “It was important because we knew President Obama wanted to make sure that position was secure whether he was re-elected or not so that Indian country had a voice in the government,” Tuell said. But the committee’s work is not finished. According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid the lame duck session will run from November 13 through December 21, Tuell said. “The committee will continue to do its work. It’s really important for us to be ready to move forward.” The Budget Control Act – the legislation that requires the massive budget cuts called sequestration – will set the tone for the lame duck session, Tuell said. But the SCIA will focus on passing the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act – “an issue close to the chairman’s heart,” Tuell said – the Indian Reorganization Act amendment and other bills that are important to Indian country. “We’ve built a very strong legislative record of why we need to solve this (Carcieri) issue. It doesn’t cost a dime. It puts us back to status quo and it’s critical that we lead with our right to have land. We own this nation! This is our land! We have a right to have homeland, so we’ve been pursuing this very strongly,” Tuell said with passion. She referred to an SCIA report that shows how the high court’s ruling is hurting tribal jurisdiction, law enforcement and loan capability. Additionally, President Obama has always been a strong advocate for a clean Carcieri fix “and his re-election doesn’t take away the urgency for the fix,” Tuell said.  “One lesson that we have learned through situations like the Patchak case is that we need to amend the Indian Reorganization Act before additional frivolous law suits are filed. Chairman Akaka is encouraged that Leader Reid included this no-cost legislative fix on his lame duck agenda,” Tuell told ICTMN. At the NCAI convention, Tuell said, “We have 60 votes on both sides on this issue. We’ve worked very hard on it. If it doesn’t happen in this Congress, it’s the number one issue in the 113th. It will not go away." Efforts will be made to move two other important bills forward during the lame duck session. The  Native CLASS Act provides for indigenous cultures, traditions and languages to be taught in BIA and public schools attended by Indian students. The SAVE Native Women Act strengthens tribal jurisdiction over domestic violence and sexual assault on all perpetrators on Indian land. “It’s primed for the lame duck. We need to fight for it. It’s the first time we’ve ever said we have the right to jurisdiction on our land. This is important,” Tuell said. But the vocal support and presence of Indian leaders is crucial to success, Tuell said. “We need your voice on this. We will need you to come to D.C. We will need you to use our voice for you nations, your communities.”

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