HELENA, MONT. — Seven Native American tribes in Montana and Virginia made their case Tuesday before a congressional panel to grant them federal recognition that would give them tribal sovereignty and make them eligible for U.S. government benefits from education to health care.
The hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs was on legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, and U.S. Rep. Robert Wittman, R-Virginia.
If they pass, the bills would make the members of the seven tribes eligible for government services and benefits from the U.S. Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, whether or not they have tribal reservations. More importantly, the legislation would help the tribes to protect their identity and restore their dignity, Wittman said.
"It would offer us finality," said Gerald Gray, chairman of Montana's Little Shell Band of Chippewa Cree Indians. The tribe has been trying for recognition for nearly 40 years but has become "the can that keeps being kicked down the road," he added.
Chickahominy tribe chief Steve Adkins spoke for the six Virginia tribes seeking recognition.
"We have stayed together as Indian people, these six tribes, for hundreds of years," Adkins said. "Today, we ask you for justice."
Currently, there are at least 566 federally recognized Native American tribes.
Besides an act of Congress, the landless tribes could achieve federal recognition through the U.S. Interior Department. In June, the U.S. Interior Department revised its rules that could make it easier for landless tribes to be formally recognized.
The agency has denied 34 petitions for recognition and granted 18 since 1978, including the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia earlier this year.
Assistant Interior Secretary Kevin Washburn said his agency doesn't object to Zinke's and Wittman's bills, acknowledging that Interior's approval process remains rigorous and lengthy.
Zinke's bill would give the Little Shell 200 acres of land in central Montana for the tribe to use as its base. The legislation would require the tribe to take a census of enrolled members, with membership determined by the tribe's constitution.
The same provisions are in a Senate bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana. That legislation advanced from Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in March, and is awaiting action by the full Senate.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $40 million to enact the bill between 2016 and 2020.
The Little Shell have been landless since the late 1800s, after Chief Little Shell and his followers in North Dakota broke off treaty negotiations with the U.S. government, settling in Montana and southern Canada.
"I think this is a case where the Chippewa have been wronged and we have the chance to right it," Zinke said.
The state of Montana recognized the tribe in 2000.
Wittman's bill, which is co-sponsored by four members of Virginia's congressional delegation, seeks recognition for the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond tribes.
The Chickahominy Indians lived near Jamestown and were among the first tribes to greet the 17th century English settlers. The other tribes' histories also record encounters with the early white settlers.
"They were the main reason why Capt. John Smith was able to survive and why the settlement of Jamestown was able to survive," Wittman said.
All six tribes have received state recognition from Virginia.
The bill calls for the Interior Department to take lands acquired by the tribes before 2007 into trust, and designate them reservation lands if the tribes request it.
A Senate version of the legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Virginia and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner advanced from the Indian Affairs committee in March.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated it would cost $78 million to enact the Virginia bill between 2016 and 2020.
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