Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
WASHINGTON – When the gavel sounded to start the first meeting of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee in the new Congress last week, a New Mexico lawmaker was sitting in an especially powerful perch.
Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat who has served on the committee for the past eight years, is now its top-ranking Democrat, a position that gives Udall broad influence over federal policies affecting Indian Country, including the Navajo Nation, New Mexico’s 19 pueblos and other tribes.
Udall said one of his highest priorities in the new role is simply to listen to America’s tribes.
“I think there’s been a lack of respect and a lack of understanding of Native American history and what they want in terms of a good future in America,” Udall said in a recent
Journal interview in his Washington office. “They were here first, and we need to respect that and work very carefully with them.”
Udall’s legendary political family has a long history of advocating for Native American causes. The New Mexico lawmaker’s ancestor, Jacob Hamblin, was a Utah Mormon and a so-called “Indian peacemaker” who served as a liaison between Indians and white settlers in sometimes brutal conflicts during U.S. expansion westward in the mid- to late 1800s. The senator’s father, Stewart Udall, served as U.S. Interior secretary under President John F. Kennedy, and had a reputation for respecting the dignity and sovereignty of Indian tribes.
Udall said that his upbringing informs his approach to Indian affairs.
“It developed in me a real compassion for their situation,” Udall said. “As a kid, I’d go with my father to the Interior Department and … you can’t walk into that department not knowing that Native Americans are a very big part of it and its history.”
As vice-chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, Udall said he will focus on health care and education, housing, economic development, infrastructure and public safety. Udall also said he will introduce legislation to crack down on the sale of sacred Indian cultural artifacts. Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico has been embroiled in a high-profile dispute over the attempted sale of a sacred pueblo shield at a Paris auction house.
“I really feel cultural repatriation is important nationally and it’s something we’ll be working on in the committee, and it’s also important to New Mexico tribes,” Udall said.
In one of his first official acts in the new role, Udall wrote to President Donald Trump asking him to exempt from a federal hiring freeze agencies that provide essential services to Native communities – particularly the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. Several of his Democratic colleagues on the committee signed the letter, but the committee chairman, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., did not.
In a fiercely polarized congressional climate, the Indian Affairs Committee has a reputation for collegial bipartisanship. The panel even refers to its top minority member as “vice-chairman” instead of “ranking member.” Udall said he’s confident he can work with Hoeven on most issues in a collegial way. But the senator said he’s concerned about the president, who he said has shown an early insensitivity to Native American issues. He cited as an example Trump’s executive order last week that advances approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which has been the site of protests by Native Americans and others who are concerned about the pipeline leaking into groundwater and disturbing sacred grounds.
“I fear that President Trump’s abrupt executive order on the Dakota Access Pipeline is an indicator that his approach to Indian Country will be misguided and cruel,” Udall said. “One of the main priorities is ensuring we hold this new administration accountable on tribal issues.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Udall’s remarks.
Native American leaders in New Mexico cheered Udall’s appointment. Max Zuni, the lieutenant governor of Isleta Pueblo, told the Journal that Udall can be an effective advocate for Native American interests in water rights and other disputes.
“It will be good to have someone we can call in Washington,” Zuni said.
Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, called Udall “a proven leader and voice for the Navajo people and Indian Country in Washington.”
“We are proud to have a New Mexican provide input and leadership for this important committee,” Begaye said. “I know he will continue his family’s strong legacy and represent the Navajo people in Washington.”
Begaye also said he hopes Udall can help Navajo farmers win a settlement from the federal government after the Environmental Protection Agency ruled this month it would not compensate Navajo farmers and others adversely affected by the Gold King Mine spill, which polluted waters and damaged crops on the reservation in 2015.
The EPA declared on Jan. 18 that, by law, it could not compensate farmers for the spill triggered when EPA workers trying to mitigate leakage from the mine inadvertently blew a hole in it, causing millions of gallons of toxic sludge to spill into the Animas River. Udall and other members of the New Mexico congressional delegation called the EPA’s belated decision not to offer compensation outrageous. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, nominated by Trump to lead the EPA, has agreed to revisit the decision if he is confirmed.
Kevin Washburn, a University of New Mexico law professor who served as director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Obama administration, told the Journal that Udall – as a “voice of reason” – has a chance to help Native Americans in his new role.
Washburn said he will be particularly interested in the committee’s advocacy for Native Americans as the Republican-controlled Congress tries to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“Included within the ACA were several significant improvements in how health care is delivered in Indian country,” Washburn said. “If the Republicans use a bludgeon and try to do a blanket repeal of the entire ACA, then they would move Indian country backwards quite a bit. There was a lot of thoughtful, common-sense stuff in the ACA for tribes.”
Washburn cited a provision allowing tribally run Indian clinics to take medical insurance from patients who are insured through their private employers as an example.
“On the other hand, if the Republicans use a scalpel and are more thoughtful about reform, there are still some further tweaks that can improve even on what President Obama did,” Washburn said. “Indian Affairs may well play a role in shining the spotlight on these issues.”
Washburn also said energy development on Indian lands will continue to be a hot-button topic, with tribes around the country taking different positions on federal policy according to their interests.
“The Committee on Indian Affairs has long been interested in reforming how much control tribes have over their own energy development, but people have quibbled over how to go about that, so nothing has happened,” Washburn said. “Sen. Udall may be able to make a difference there.”