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WASHINGTON — In addition to news already covered during the previous week, each Sunday Native News Online provides an overview of activity in Washington, D.C. that impacts Indian Country during the past week.

Bipartisan Urban Indian Health Confer Act Introduced 

A bipartisan bill, the Urban Indian Health Confer Act, was introduced on Friday, Sept. 10 by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ) with support from Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Tom Cole (R-OK).

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If passed, the bill has the opportunity to fix ongoing long standing parity issues within the Indian health system. 

Agencies and offices within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would be required to confer with Urban Indian Organizations (UIOs)  on policies and initiatives related to healthcare for urban American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN). The importance of facilitating conversations between the many federal branches within HHS and UIO-stakeholders. Currently, only the Indian Health Service (IHS) has a legal-obligation to confer with UIOs. 

Chairman Grijalva said in a statement:

“HHS' failure to communicate with UIOs about healthcare policies that impact urban Indian communities is inconsistent with the federal trust responsibility and contrary to sound public health policy. The Urban Indian Health Confer Act will establish direct communication for UIOs across the entire department and ensure that urban Indian communities are aware of healthcare policy changes."

Clearly, the lack of communication between departments has a negative impact on Native communities who use healthcare services provided by HHS and UIOs. 

 “Agencies have been operating as if only IHS has a trust obligation to AI/ANs, and that causes an undue burden to IHS to be in all conversations regarding Indian Country in order to talk with agencies. It is imperative that UIOs have avenues for direct communication with agencies charged with overseeing the health of their AI/AN patients, especially during the present health crisis," National Council of Urban Indian Health CEO, Francys Crevier (Algonquin) said.

Support for the bill is clear among stakeholders in Indian Country. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) just recently passed a resolution to “Call for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary to implement an Urban Confer Policy across the HHA and its divisions”. 

U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture Releases Language for Reconciliation Bill

This week, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its bill language for the upcoming $3.5 trillion Budget Reconciliation Bill. 

Here are some of the provisions included in the bill that may affect Native communities:

  • $40 million to remain available until Sept. 2031 for direct loans and loan guarantees for some rural business development programs.
  • $430 million to remain available until Sept. 2031 for the cost of grants for rural water and wastewater programs in “persistent poverty counties and insular areas.”
  • $3.5 billion to Indian Tribes and others for grant funds to be put towards: 1) conducting comprehensive rural development and pre-development activities and planning; 2) supporting organizational operating expenses relating to the rural development for which the grant was provided; 3) implementing planned rural development activities and projects.
  • $10 billion for hazardous fuels reduction within wildland-urban interface (Wildfire risk reduction).
  • $4 billion for hazardous fuels reduction around at-risk communities outside the wildland-urban interface.
  • $1.25 billion to provide competitive grants for entities to acquire land and interests in land that 1) offer significant natural carbon sequestration benefits; or 2) contribute to the resilience of community infrastructure, local economies, or natural systems.
  • $100 million for acquisition of urban and community forests.
  • $3 billion to provide competitive grants to Indian Tribes and others for tree planting and related activities to increase community tree canopy and associated societal and climate benefits, with a priority for projects that increase tree equity.
USDA Announces Food and Farm Workers Aid Grants 

On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA would be giving $700 million in grants to help farm and food workers who have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. These grants are for any farmworker, meatpacking worker, or front-line grocery worker who experienced raised expenses due to the pandemic. These new grants are funded by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

Uses for the grant are “intended to defray costs for reasonable and necessary personal, family, or living expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as costs for personal protective equipment (PPE), dependent care, and expenses associated with quarantines and testing related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” as stated in the USDA announcement. 

Farmers and food workers can receive up to $600 in payments through this program. Funds will also be given to individual state governments, Tribal entities, and nonprofits, ranging from $5 million to $50 million. 

Grant applications will be released Fall 2021.

The FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy Invites Comment on E-Rate Program

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) will consider at its next meeting on Sept. 30 a proposed draft to change to language for the definition of the word library so that tribal libraries are included for eligibility for E-Rate universal support.

Currently, some tribal libraries have been shut off from E-Rate support because they didn’t meet the technical definition of a library in the Commission’s rules.

The draft also is seeking to receive comment on other ways the Commission can ensure Tribal access to the E-Rate program which provides around $3 billion annually to eligible K-12 schools and libraries for internet connections, telecommunication services, and related equipment. 

Any interested stakeholders are invited to submit comments about the draft proposal prior to the open meeting. Stakeholders will also have a second opportunity to provide comment on the final proposal once the Notice is adopted and published in the Federal Register.  

Any questions regarding the Tribal Engagement Obligation can be directed to Senior Legal Advisor in the Office of Native Affairs and Policy, Janet Sievert, at (202)418-1362 or [email protected]

USAC’s official announcement can be found here

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Vice Chair Murkowski Announces New Committee Staff

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), vice chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, announced Amber Ebarb and Luch Murfitt have joined the Committee’s staff.

“I am pleased that Amber Ebarb and Lucy Murfitt have transitioned over to the Committee. They provide a depth of knowledge and skill that will complement the Committee’s work to advance the lives of American Indian and Alaska Native people. Both women are familiar with the many issues affecting Indigenous peoples and I am confident they will serve the Committee and Indian Country exceptionally well,” Murkowski said.

Ebarb joins the Committee as deputy staff director. Her Tlingit name is Gin Du Tlaa and she is L'eeneidí, a member of the Raven Dog Salmon clan. Previously, she served as Legislative Assistant to Senator Murkowski, handling the Alaska Native and Rural Affairs portfolio

Prior to the Senate, Amber worked at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) where she facilitated tribes in developing and advocating for consensus policy positions and contributed to NCAI’s Policy Research Center in coordinating research on tribal policy priorities.

Murfitt joins the Committee as chief counsel. Previously, she served as chief counsel for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (ENR). Murfitt joined ENR in 2013, and previously served as the committee’s public lands counsel, deputy chief counsel, and deputy staff director for public lands and natural resources. While at ENR, she worked on a range of legislative priorities for Alaska and Native peoples, including Title II of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act of 2019, and the Energy Act of 2020.  

Prior to her time on the Energy Committee, Lucy spent eight years as legislative counsel to U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, the Republican Whip, handling the energy, environment, and natural resources portfolio. She also worked at the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University as its director of policy and partnerships and for the Department of the Army as a trial attorney and advisor to the Base Realignment and Closure Office.

Neely Bardwell (descendant of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians), a Michigan State University student who is interning with Native News Online, contributed to these briefs.

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