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Oversight hearing on Federal recognition: Political and legal relationship between governments

Statement of Chairman Daniel K. Akaka

Thu, July 12, 2012

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Aloha, and welcome to the Committee's oversight hearing on Federal Recognition:  the Political and Legal Relationship between Governments. 

The people of the United States have long acknowledged that our nation has a special relationship with and responsibility to our indigenous peoples, one that we first contemplated as we framed our Constitution, and have struggled to fulfill ever since.

We have long acknowledged that as we forge this new nation, the United States, and continue our great experiment in democracy, we must ensure the survival of the many Native nations who have called these lands home long before Columbus first set sail.

The United States has recognized that the trust responsibility to Native nations means supporting and advancing their ability to be self-determining and self-sufficient.

Fulfilling that trust responsibility has meant federal action in three basic areas: providing support to address barriers to self-sufficiency;  enacting laws to protect the collective rights of all Native nations;  and actively engaging Native nations in a government-to-government relationship.

Currently, the United States is taking action in all three areas of the trust responsibility with 566 federally-recognized Native nations.  For my own people-the Native Hawaiian people-the United States has taken action on two out of the three areas.

The United States currently provides support for addressing barriers to self-sufficiency and protects the collective rights of the Native Hawaiian people in the same laws that protect the rights of other indigenous peoples. 

My bill, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, S. 675, takes action to fulfill the third trust responsibility to the Native Hawaiian people by engaging in a government-to-government relationship with them.

In the past, federal acknowledgment has come in a variety of ways.  Federal recognition of the trust responsibility and status of these Native nations as sovereign governments has occurred through treaties, acts of Congress, Court rulings, and Administrative decisions.  It wasn't until 1978 that a uniform process existed for federal recognition.

Unfortunately that process, which was intended to streamline federal recognition and make it consistent, has failed to accomplish that goal. 

So, the road to federal recognition remains a difficult one because the Administrative process is most often described as "broken" and Congress has not recognized a tribe through legislation in over a decade.  Many Native Nations wait - sometimes for decades - for the federal government to acknowledge a trust responsibility and their status as sovereign governments.

Numerous tribal leaders, interest groups, the GAO, and Senators from both sides of the aisle acknowledge the flaws in the recognition process. 

The length of the process, interpretation of the criteria, and staffing needs have been raised countless times at Committee hearings.  Sadly, little has changed with the process and many of the issues raised decades ago remain unresolved.

As a nation, we must always remember our history, and the circumstances from which our great democracy was born.  Fulfilling the Federal trust responsibility to America's first peoples, our indigenous nations, isn't simply a matter of good will.  It is a matter of justice, of promises kept, and of remembering the debt owed to those whose sacrifices have helped to make this great Nation possible.

It is important that as we contemplate policies that fulfill that responsibility, we strive to achieve parity among Native nations.  The United States must ensure that we are meeting our trust responsibility to each Native nation in all three areas:  addressing barriers to self-sufficiency; protecting the collective rights of Native nations; and engaging in a government-to-government relationship.

Congress sets the standard and direction of Indian policies, maintains oversight in their implementation, and must exercise its authority to correct situations when implementation has not achieved the goals of this great Nation.
It will take a concerted effort on behalf of tribal leaders, advocates, the Administration, and the Congress to fix the recognition process.  I look forward to continuing to work with all of you on this endeavor.

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