May 24, 2011

Rahall Legislation Reinforces Indian Tribe Sovereignty during Major Disasters and Emergency Situations

Washington, D.C.– As Joplin, Missouri, recovers from the single deadliest tornado since officials began keeping records in 1950, U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, today introduced bipartisan legislation that would solidify Indian Country’s tribal sovereignty during major disasters and emergency situations.

“This has been a priority for Indian Country for over a decade and upon enactment will treat Indian tribes as the sovereign governments that they are,” said Rahall.  “As sovereign nations, Indian tribes should have a direct line to the Federal government to expedite aid and assistance during an emergency or major disaster.”

Under current law, Indian tribes experiencing a disaster or emergency situation must rely upon a State governor to request the President for an emergency declaration, which triggers federal resources.  Legislation introduced today would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to authorize Indian tribes to directly request the President for such a declaration.

“Current law is not only contrary to tribal sovereignty but it also requires the President to consider the State’s, not the tribe’s, ability to pay for the damages,” said Rahall.  “Under this legislation, tribes may still request the State to make the declaration on their behalf but it provides another avenue for those tribes who want to exercise their sovereignty or where a State may be unable or unwilling to make a request on a tribe’s behalf.”

Rahall earlier this year convened a Native American Transportation, Infrastructure and Economic Development Roundtable with tribal leaders from across the country who raised concerns that the current process threatens and undermines the very principles of sovereignty.  Rahall crafted draft legislation to address these concerns and circulated the bill to Indian Country for comment in March, 2011.  The legislation introduced today directly addresses issues raised by tribal leaders at the March 2, 2011, roundtable, and incorporates some of the recommendations by Indian Country following the roundtable.

“Indian Country will always have a prominent place at the table as I draft legislation that affects their lives and livelihoods,” said Rahall.  “Indian tribes’ voices will be heard, their ideas will be incorporated, and they will be an equal partner in the process.”

"Rahall’s legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), Republican Co-Chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Democratic Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.  Letters of support have also been received from the National Congress of American Indians as well as other tribal organizations and individuals involved in emergency management.