Infrastructure Bill Includes “Transformational Investment” for Tribal Nations

After weeks of fits and starts, the Senate approved a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan for states on Aug. 10. A day later, the Senate approved a $3.5 trillion budget resolution sending funding into family, health and environmental programs. All in all, the actions represent delivering a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The impact on Indian Country is significant. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. called the bill a “historic, potentially transformational investment for tribes across this country” in a virtual meeting with President Joe Biden and other leaders Wednesday.

During another town hall Wednesday hosted by the National Congress of American Indians, Amber Ebarb, Tlingit, deputy staff director for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said the lawmaker has been working hard over the last few months to garner support from the Republican side of the aisle.

Ebarb said, like many, they were excited to see the bill’s passage.

“We really think it’s a truly historic achievement for everyone, including American Indians and Alaska Native, to get this across the line in the Senate in a bipartisan way. As Vice Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, she [Sen. Lisa Murkowsi] was proud to fight for and champion resources for Native people throughout these lengthy negotiations,” Ebarb said. “It’s been important to her that the federal government upholds its treaty and trust obligations.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawai’i and chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, released a statement saying that the infrastructure plan includes more than $11 billion in dedicated funding for tribal nations and Native communities.

“Native communities’ critical infrastructure needs, such as sanitation, transportation, water settlements and broadband have been well documented-yet underfunded-for decades,” Schatz wrote. “The more than $11 billion for Native communities is proof positive that we can come together, on a bipartisan basis to get things done.”

The infrastructure bill includes:

  • $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program
  • $3 billion for the U.S. Department of Transportation Tribal Transportation Program
  • $2.5 billion to address approved Indian water rights settlements
  • $2 billion for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program to expand broadband access on tribal lands and Hawaiian home lands

Tribes and Native-serving organizations are set to receive additional funding to support transportation enhancement, energy development, water and sanitation construction, broadband deployment, climate resiliency, natural resource management and environmental remediation among other infrastructure priorities for Native communities.

Beyond the dollars and cents allocated in the bills funding, the bill will require expedited environmental review for tribal transportation safety projects, streamline categorical exclusions by empowering tribes in relation to the federal government and also create a new Assistant Secretary of Tribal Government Affairs at the Department of Transportation.

The $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program will fund all identified sanitation projects, according to the IHS.

Additionally, the funds for tribal broadband connectivity will have far reaching impacts.

“Broadband deployment on tribal lands has lagged far behind the rest of the nation,” Ebarb said. “So to help address this gap, the bill includes an additional $2 billion dollars for the tribal broadband connectivity grants, addressing this disparity across Indian Country and especially in Alaska is vital to education, health care, economic development as well as self governance.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior released a statement explaining how the infrastructure bill would fund climate resiliency projects such as helping Native communities under threat of climate related impacts relocate to safer areas.

The Village of Tahaloh on the Quinault Nation in Washington, for instance, is under threat from storm surges, flooding and tsunamis and is in the process of relocating to higher ground. While visiting the Village on August 9, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland described how the infrastructure bill includes a $466 million investment for the Bureau of Indian Affairs that would support community-led transitions for tribal communities.

“As coastal communities face the increasing threat of rising seas, coastal erosion and storm surges, our focus must be on bolstering climate resilience,” Secretary Haaland said in the statement.

The $466 million investment includes $216 million for tribal climate resilience, adaption and community relocation planning, design and implementation of projects which address the varying climate challenges facing tribal communities across the country and $250 million for construction, repair, improvement and maintenance of irrigation and power systems, safety of dams, water sanitation and other facilities.

But not everyone is celebrating the Senate’s approval of the infrastructure bill. Some people in Indian Country, especially environmental advocates, say the bill woefully underfunds programs that help tackle the climate crisis.

The Indigenous Environmental Network published a statement saying that the bill supports overinvesting in false solutions that will prolong the impacts of climate change. The Indigenous Environmental Network is a nonprofit organization focusing on environmental and economic issues.

According to the organization’s statement, the infrastructure bill undermines the recently released 2021 United Nations climate change report which demands real, meaningful and science-based approaches to thwarting the climate crisis. The organization also calls for the federal government to codify free, prior, informed consent for tribal nations and communities as guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

By rolling back funding for the National Environmental Policy Act, allowing $18 billion in loan guarantees for the struggling Alaska LNG project designed to access natural gas from the North Slope and forwarding carbon capture and nuclear energy, the bill effectively offers false solutions that will negatively impact Indian Country according to the organization’s statement.

Although the organization praised the bill for its allocation of $20.5 billion to the Committee on Indian Affairs to fund health, facilities, education, housing, energy and Native language programs and a Native Civilian Climate Corps, it noted that the funding was inadequate.

The organization offered support for a letter sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer by the Congressional Progressive Caucus expressing its commitment to withhold a ‘yes’ vote in the House for the bill until the Senate passes budget reconciliation legislation that ensures a robust package of social, human and climate infrastructure programs. The caucus has 96 members, 95 in the House and one Senator, who support progressive ideals; it is chaired by Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, Rep. Katie Porter of California and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

In April, the caucus sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi laying out their priorities and reminding President Biden of his campaign promise to support a four year $2 trillion accelerated investment on climate focused infrastructure.

Indeed, despite President Biden’s campaign promise to end new drilling on federal lands as a means to rein in climate-changing emissions, approvals for companies to drill for oil and gas on public lands are on pace this year to reach their highest level since George W. Bush was president.

The Department of Interior approved about 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first six months of 2021 according to an analysis of government data by the Associated Press. This includes more than 2,100 drilling approvals since President Biden took office on January 20.

Steps taken by the administration on fossil fuels have been modest including a temporary suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal lands that a judge blocked in June, blocking petroleum sales in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and cancelation of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada.

In June, the Biden administration took a public position supporting the Army Corps of Engineer’s granting of a water permit for Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project despite pleas by Native Americans, environmental groups and over 200 celebrities who sent a letter urging the President to follow through on its promises to address climate change.

Line 3 opponents have repeatedly called for Biden to halt the project.

Winona LaDuke, citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and executive director of Honor the Earth, reminded the president that Indigenous voters played a key role in his successful election.

“I drove people to the polls for you, Joe; many were first time voters,” LaDuke said.

Line 3 opponents say that pipeline construction endangers wetlands and waterways, wild rice habitat and supports a commitment to fossil fuel infrastructure.

In a recent interview with The New York Times Magazine LaDuke says Biden is hellbent on destroying Ojibwe people with the Enbridge line 3 pipeline.

“I had the highest hopes for the Biden administration only to have them crushed,’ she said.

Opponents to the Line 3 pipeline continue to organize actions against its construction and pursue lawsuits in both federal and state courts.

Holly Cook Macarro, Red Lake Ojibwe, said she sees more conversations ramping up around this “non-traditional” piece of the infrastructure bill, climate resiliency, because of these climate change activists speaking out. Cook Macarro is a partner at Spirit Rock Consulting and has more than 20 years of experience advocating for tribes in Congress.

Shortly after clinching the initial budget victory, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer conceded that Democrats face a tough pathway to delivering a package surging $3.5 trillion into family, health and environmental programs to President Biden’s desk.

The real test will be when Democrats write and vote on subsequent legislation actually enacting the party’s priorities into specific spending and tax policies. To succeed, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi D-California, will have to satisfy competing demands from party moderates worried about a fat price tag and progressives demanding an all-out drive for their priorities, all with virtually no margin for error in the narrowly divided Congress.

Underscoring the political broadsides that lie ahead, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, said in a statement that he has “serious concerns about the grave consequences” of spending an additional $3.5 trillion that he said could fuel inflation and threaten the economy.

The House may not vote on final passage of either bill until well into the fall.

ICT’s Kolby KickingWoman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.