September 20, 2012

Rahall Legislation to Reinforce Indian Tribal Sovereignty During Major Disasters Approved by House

Washington, D.C.– The House of Representatives has approved legislation authored by U.S. Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that solidifies Indian Country’s tribal sovereignty during major disasters and emergency situations.  Rahall’s legislation was included as part of a larger bill to reauthorize the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which was approved by voice vote on Wednesday evening.

“Passage of this legislation represents a major victory for Indian Country and for tribal sovereignty,” said Rahall.  “For more than a decade Indian tribes have sought a direct line to the Federal government in order expedite aid during an emergency or major disaster.  Now, with this action by the House of Representatives, they are one crucial step closer to being able to access appropriate federal assistance when unforeseen adversity hits.”   

Under current law, Indian tribes experiencing a disaster or emergency situations must rely upon a State governor to request the President for an emergency declaration.  Often if damage from a disaster is restricted to a reservation and does not have a broader impact on the state, federal disaster aid cannot be triggered.   

Last year, wild fires ravaged thousands of acres of forest resources, watershed, and cultural sites on the Santa Clara Pueblo Indian Reservation.  Santa Clara residents were forced to rely on New Mexico officials to submit required paperwork to FEMA which added unnecessary delays.  It wasn’t until last month that the Reservation was granted aid following a separate disaster.

The legislation that has now been approved by the House would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to authorize Indian tribes to directly request the President for emergency declarations.

“Current law is not only contrary to tribal sovereignty but it also requires the President to only 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’s legislation was crafted with input from tribal leaders across the country who raised concerns that the current law undermines the principles of sovereignty and results in slow response times when disasters occur. Soon after the bill’s introduction, FEMA announced its support for amending the Stafford Act and allowing tribal governments to directly apply for disaster assistance.

“Now that the House has demonstrated its strong support for tribal sovereignty it is my hope that our colleagues in the Senate will act expeditiously and get this bill to the President’s desk for signature,” Rahall concluded.

Rahall’s legislation was cosponsored by U.S. Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), Republican Co-Chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, 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.  A companion bill S. 2283, introduced by Senator Jon Tester awaits action in the Senate.