Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Monday unveiled a sweeping, first-of-its-kind bill aimed at addressing the U.S. government’s broken promises to Native American tribes, providing a legislative framework to Congress for living up to its legal and financial responsibilities laid out in centuries of treaties.
The bill, called the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act, has been in the works for years and written with extensive input from tribal leaders and citizens. It’s a direct response to a damning 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that detailed the government’s chronic underfunding of tribes in five areas: housing, education, health care, economic development and public safety. Warren’s bill, which is being introduced in the House by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), lays out where to direct mandatory, full federal spending in all five of those areas ― at the levels they should have been at all along.
Is Warren’s bill going to pass anytime soon? No. Will it ever? Probably not. For starters, it’s incredibly ambitious and carries a massive price tag of $65 billion in the first year of its enactment, according to Warren’s office. And we’re talking about a Congress that can barely carry out its most basic task of keeping the federal government running at all.
But Warren would argue that’s not really the point of this bill. Think of it more as a starting point for lawmakers to fully grasp and talk about the government’s systematic underfunding of tribes, and then have legislative solutions ready to act on. The plan is so comprehensive that individual pieces of it could easily be pulled out and move as stand-alone bills.
One proposal in the bill, for example, is to pass a so-called “full Oliphant fix,” which would gives tribes full criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who commit any crimes on tribal land. Tribes currently only have limited jurisdiction over non-Native men who are violent toward Indigenous women, which hampers tribes’ ability to punish them. Meanwhile, more than 84% of Native American women experience domestic violence, and the vast majority report being victimized by a non-Native person.
This provision alone is a major public safety issue for tribal leaders, and could pass on its own with bipartisan support. Clearly Warren supports this, and on the Republican side, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has been a consistent supporter of at least a partial Oliphant fix.
The push to come up with legislation like this at all came in part from then-Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), one of the first two Indigenous women in Congress and now the secretary of the interior. She and Warren previously tag-teamed on the effort to produce Monday’s bill.
“For generations, the U.S. government has clearly failed to fulfill its commitments to Tribal Nations,” Warren said in a statement. “This bill is sweeping in ambition to make good on those commitments and empower Native communities, and it provides a much-needed legislative blueprint to deliver significant, long-term funding for the advancement of Native Americans.”
Here’s a copy of the 244-page bill, first obtained by HuffPost:
The proposal has strong support from tribal leaders all over the country, including Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and chair of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association; Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine and president of the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund; Chief Bill Smith, chair of the National Indian Health Board and vice president of the Valdez Native Tribe in Alaska; and Adrianne Maddux, executive director of the Denver-based Indian Health and Family Services Inc. That means that lawmakers in both parties may start hearing from some of these tribal leaders about supporting at least parts of the bill.
National Indigenous advocacy organizations are also hailing the bill’s introduction. Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said it is “indisputable” that the U.S. government has been chronically underfunding tribes for decades.
“This underfunding is no longer a quiet crisis, it’s a raging humanitarian crisis all across Indian Country,” Sharp said in a statement. “The Honoring Promises Act is a critically important piece of legislation and the first of its kind designed to actually honor the promises the U.S. made with Tribal Nations.”
It certainly helps the bill’s prospects with President Joe Biden in the White House. Last week, he hosted a Tribal Nations Summit at the White House, where he touted his record of historic investments in tribes and Native American communities. In the past two years, he has helped deliver $45 billion in federal funding to tribes through the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“No one’s ever done as much as president as this administration is doing. Period. Period,” Biden said to loud cheers from tribal leaders in attendance. “I am committed.”