WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, delivered the Congressional Response to the 2015 State of Indian Nations address given by National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby.
Chairman Barrasso’s remarks focused on his vision and priorities for the Committee, including energy and natural resource development, healthcare, juvenile justice, and tribal self-governance.
Senator Barrasso’s Remarks As Prepared for Delivery:
“Good afternoon President Cladoosby, tribal leaders, and distinguished guests.
“I want to welcome my friends from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe: Chairman Darwin St. Clair, Co-Chair Clinton Wagon, and Council Member Jodie McAdams.
“It is a privilege to be here today.
“I want to thank you President Cladoosby for the invitation to deliver the Congressional Response to the State of Indian Nations Address.
“I am truly honored to serve as the new Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“I want to thank Senator Jon Tester who worked diligently for Indian people during his time as Chairman.
“I look forward to working with him, as the Vice Chairman, and the other Members of the Committee in a bipartisan manner throughout the 114th Congress.
“This tradition of bipartisanship is emblematic of how we honor our history and relationship with Indian Country.
“The relationship between the United States and Indian tribes has not always been positive – and has not always served the people of Indian Country well.
“As President Cladoosby stated, ‘we are not where we used to be.’
“In recent years, our shared history has experienced landmark improvements in Federal Indian policy.
“This year will mark the 45th Anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s ‘Special Message to Congress on Indian Affairs.’
“His message set a new tone and Federal policy to promote tribal self-determination.
“This new Federal policy of self-determination has helped tribes create economic opportunities and gave tribes greater control over Federal programs.
“Through this policy, we have moved on from where we used to be.
“While much work still needs to be done, I am committed to greater tribal self-determination.
“Indeed, President Cladoosby noted that this is a ‘remarkable moment in our shared history.’
“It has been eight years since a Republican Majority was elected to lead the United States Senate.
“No matter which party is in charge, the people of Indian Country deserve action and solutions.
“My main priority is to help the people of Indian Country live better lives.
“There are two tribes in my home state of Wyoming: the Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe.
“The tribal leaders of these two tribes have stated to me over the years how important good jobs, health care and public safety are to their communities.
“Addressing these fundamental needs can contribute significantly to improving the lives of Indian people.
“As Chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, my top priorities are jobs, energy and natural resource development, healthcare, juvenile justice, and tribal self-governance.
“The more progress we can make on these issues, the more progress we can make in helping families.
“I am committed to following in the footsteps of my predecessors, Chairmen such as Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Senator John McCain, Senator Daniel Inouye, Senator Jon Tester, Senator Cantwell and my dear friend, Senator Daniel Akaka.
“They firmly believed that the best solutions came from Indian Country.
“It is Indian Country that we must engage when evaluating Federal Indian policy and legislation.
“With that in mind, the first hearing I have called as Chairman is to receive the views of Indian Country on priorities for the 114th Congress.
“Many of the issues facing Indian communities are not new issues.
“I am impressed by the commitment expressed today to finding innovative solutions – even if it is as modest as simplifying regulations.
“I look forward to hearing additional views at this first hearing.
“Too often I have heard from Indian tribes that agency rules are confusing and duplicative.
“In some cases, the over burdensome regulations have prevented economic development in Indian Country.
“These rules further prevent Indian tribes from tailoring programs in such a way that would truly benefit their communities.
“It is counterproductive for Washington to impose rules inhibiting tribal economies and growth.
“Washington should empower tribes, not restrain them.
“I appreciate the words spoken today that there must be a way to simplify Federal regulation and increase local control.
“I am dedicated to working with Indian Country to achieve those goals.
“One of the first bills I have introduced in this Congress is the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act.
“This legislation will cut the bureaucratic red-tape and let tribes develop their energy resources.
“The bill will streamline the required Secretarial approvals of many energy development transactions on Indian lands, such as business agreements, rights-of-ways, and leases.
“It will also facilitate renewable energy by promoting biomass development.
“This is a bipartisan bill developed from many discussions with Indian tribes.
“This bill will help empower tribes for many generations.
“It puts the decision-making back into the hands of Indian tribes so they control their resources, not Washington.
“This bill has been around in some form for four Congresses now.
“I urge Indian Country and the Administration to join me in getting this bill signed into law this year.
“Empowering tribes not only means lifting regulatory burdens. Empowerment includes accountability.
“The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act requires that tribes administering Indian programs demonstrate a higher level of responsible governance and administration.
“Good governance is vital for continuing this policy of tribal self-determination.
“We should expect no less from the Federal agencies as well.
“As Chairman, I will conduct oversight of existing Federal programs to eliminate waste.
“More importantly, the Committee will examine these programs to ensure they are working effectively and productively for Native Americans.
“Empowerment also means providing tools to govern such as through economic development.
“Many tribal economies are agriculturally-based.
“That means, water.
“Careful management of water in Indian Country is essential if we are to ensure a reliable supply in the future.
“Many ranchers and farmers, both Indian and non-Indian, still depend on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deliver water for their needs.
“The Department of the Interior initiated several Indian irrigation projects in the late 1800s and early 1900s intended as a central component of tribal economies.
“In most cases, the Federal Government did not even complete these projects.
“Today, there is a serious backlog of deferred maintenance to the tune of nearly $549 million.
“Deferred maintenance means inefficient water delivery and damaged infrastructure.
“For the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, these issues are perpetual problems.
“The Department has not developed a long-term strategy in managing these irrigation systems.
“So to address this backlog, I intend to introduce legislation that would begin addressing the deferred maintenance of these irrigation systems.
“I thank the National Congress of American Indians for supporting both the Indian energy and irrigation bills through their resolutions passed last October.
“These measures are small but important pieces to several tribal economies.
“I don’t plan to stop there.
“I intend to continue the conversation with Indian Country on economic development issues throughout this Congress.
“Today we heard many examples of how tribes are ‘engines of economic growth’ and ‘innovative governments.’
“While we triumph in Indian Country innovation and progress, we cannot forget those that still need attention and help.
“President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that ‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’
“I cannot think of any more deserving of our attention than the most vulnerable: Indian children.
“Indian Country innovation and input will be critical in reversing Federal policies that have worked to the detriment of Indian people or have not worked at all for Indian children.
“In particular, we will draw upon Indian Country’s experiences to strengthen accountability measures.
“For example, in 2010, I co-sponsored and Congress passed the Tribal Law and Order Act.
“This Act established the Indian Law and Order Commission to examine various aspects of criminal justice in Indian Country – most notably juvenile justice.
“The Commission’s Report highlighted alarming juvenile justice issues.
“According to this Report, Indian juveniles are held in detention at higher rates and for longer terms than any other juvenile population in the United States.
“Too often these young people are not provided the educational or rehabilitative services needed to help turn their lives around.
“Tribal leaders have expressed concerns that a significant portion of their younger generation is being lost to the justice system.
“Many of these juveniles may end up in the adult justice system at some point in their lives.
“This matter has been long overlooked.
“I urge Indian Country to join the Committee in examining these problems and finding a path forward for these young people.
“The Indian population is increasing and becoming younger.
“The life expectancy of Native Americans is unacceptably low.
“Alcoholism and suicide are some of the leading causes of death for Indians.
“On the Wind River Indian Reservation, in my home state of Wyoming, the average age of death is 49 years old.
“This type of low life expectancy is similar on other reservations.
“So we should not be satisfied that Congress passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act or the Tribal Law and Order Act.
“We should remain diligent in ensuring that these measures are working for the benefit of Indian Country – to address these troubling death rates and juvenile issues.
“I recognize that the evolution of the Federal-tribal relationship remains a work in progress.
“I intend to lead these efforts in a continued government-to-government relationship, respecting the power of each Indian tribe to govern itself.
“I am confident that we will continue to find common ground which improves the lives of Indian people.
“Together, we can make progress in helping Indian Country succeed and celebrating the promise of our shared values.
“Again, thank you for inviting me here today. I look forward to working with you in the years ahead. Thank you.”