Infrastructure in Indian Country needs to be ‘fair and equitable’

Subcommittee says hearing is a step in the right direction toward identifying problems and finding solutions on tribal infrastructure

Roads are crumbling and unpaved. Bridges lack the funding for repair. Tribes are facing many issues in regards to infrastructure on tribal lands.

The Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States held a hearing yesterday on “Tribal Infrastructure: Roads, Bridges, and Buildings,” which began more than an hour after the original start time due to a larger than usual number of votes needed to be taken on the House floor.

Chairman Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, said roads in Indian Country rank among the most underdeveloped and under maintained roads in the United States. He cited a recent incident on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation where a 40-foot wide chunk of highway was swept away due to flood waters which resulted in multiple fatalities, adding that climate change continues to affect our everyday lives.

“Indian Country, as well as other rural and minority communities, have always been on the front lines of climate change,” Gallego said. “Without strong and well contained infrastructure to mitigate negative impacts, Indian Country will continue to disproportionately suffer as a result of changes in the weather patterns and worsening natural disasters.”

Rep. Paul Cook, R-California, echoed some of the sentiments of Gallego adding that the hearing was a step in the right direction to having funds allocated to address the deficiencies that have been around for a long time.

“You have to have a buy-in with multiple shareholders and we have to recognize that there is a problem,” Cook said.

Among the problems discussed include the backlog of deficiencies and dangers of unkept bridges in Indian Country, as well as the lack of resources available to tribes to properly maintain roads on tribal lands. Of the 13,650 miles of road owned and maintained by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 75 percent are unpaved which affect Native communities in a number of ways.

Martin Harvier, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, told the subcommittee that while his community was at one time on the outskirts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, it is now bordered by Tempe, Scottsdale and Mesa.

The result is a larger than normal number of stakeholders that have responsibilities for the roadways, making it more complex to deal with governmental entities of varying levels to solve infrastructure issues as they arise.

“The highest priority for our community is paving the 52 miles of dirt roads which serve our members,” Harvier said. “Based on current funding levels it will take approximately 59 years to pave these roads.”

Red Lake Nation Chairman Darrell G. Seki, Sr., discussed how the BIA has failed to assist his tribe in repairing public safety buildings and their tribal roads system. He told the story of how his tribe, located in Minnesota, had to take out a loan to replace two deteriorating BIA fire halls and asked the committee to push the federal agency to pay a fair and equitable lease cost to the tribe.

Seki said the BIA turned down a lease proposal this past May for the fire halls because the fire sprinklers were not in compliance with BIA regulations. The buildings are in compliance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from which they received their loan, as well as the state.

“These are brand new facilities, they’re up-to-date facilities,” Seki said. “Why are they doing that? We’ve been punished for 500-plus years and they continue to punish tribes. That’s got to stop.”

Acknowledging these issues is just the beginning and a joint hearing with the Transportation Committee may be in the future. As the process continues to move forward, Cook said it is long overdue to look at outdated laws that affect funding.

“The way that [the laws] were written, they’ve got to be reviewed and brought up to date and got to take all the prejudice that was built in there, to make sure we take care of Indian Country so that it is fair and equitable for all the tribal members associated with that,” he said.

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Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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