Poor access to health care, drug and alcohol abuse, teen suicide, and a lack of job opportunities plague Indian reservations across the country. With unemployment rates in a number of large Indian communities well over 50%, many tribes live in conditions that resemble Third World countries. The causes of these conditions are complex but generally stem from federal paternalism. And yet, despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, the current administration is unshakable in its belief that government knows what’s best for Indian tribes.
Take a basic issue for tribes: economic development. Although the Obama administration pays lip service to tribal self-determination, its treatment of tribes belies its rhetoric. There are 56 million acres of land belonging to tribes and individual Indians, but the titles to these lands are held “in trust” by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This policy was intended to protect Indians from trespass and encroachment by states and non-Indian settlers. Yet recently it has become a way to control what a tribe can do with its own lands.
For example, the Government Accountability Office released a little-publicized report in June, which found that the BIA has hindered energy development on Indian lands. Oil, natural gas and coal—the energy sources that have the greatest economic potential—were especially targeted. According to the report, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe estimated that, due to an eight-year permitting process, it lost “more than $95 million in revenues it could have earned from tribal permitting fees, oil and gas severance taxes, and royalties.”
On Oct. 8, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Native American Energy Act, which seeks to “facilitate the development of energy on Indian lands by reducing Federal regulations that impede tribal development of Indian lands.” The bill is supported by a broad cross-section of Indian Country. The Obama administration opposes it.
As long as the federal government owns the title to Indian lands, special interests close to the administration—such as radical environmental organizations—may influence what is permitted on their lands. As a result, tribes, many of them poverty-stricken, have missed the jobs, revenue and economic opportunities of energy production. America’s energy boom has slowed amid a global drop in oil prices, but the cyclical nature of the industry makes it imperative that Indian tribes are able to profit from the next energy upturn.
This administration has also unilaterally made drastic amendments to the tribal recognition process, a move that gets at the foundation of all tribal policy with profound consequences on existing tribes, the federal budget, and state civil, criminal and tax jurisdiction. These changes, finalized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in June, were opposed by many federally recognized tribes. Yes, the application process must be modernized, but Congress should do so, not bureaucrats behind closed doors.
This is why, on Oct. 20, I introduced the Tribal Recognition Act of 2015, which states that “an Indian group may receive Federal acknowledgment as an Indian tribe only by an Act of Congress.” Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution—commonly known as the “Indian Commerce Clause”—clearly gives Congress authority over Indian affairs.
Yet this administration has proven that it will go to great lengths to control Indian affairs. Since the House Committee on Natural Resources began oversight of tribal policy, top BIA officials have made multiple disrespectful comments about the committee, including thinly veiled accusations of racism. In a recent interview, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn even accused the committee of “statements and questioning that harkened back to the termination era.”
No longer can Congress be bullied into standing by as the Obama administration dictates tribal policy. The Native American Energy Act and the Tribal Recognition Acts should come to a vote and be signed into law, if not by this president then the next. The U.S. government’s legacy of subjugation and failure regarding Native Americans is a stain on America’s history. Tribes must be offered the same opportunities as the rest of the country to chart their own destiny.
Mr. Bishop, a Republican from Utah, is the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.