HEARING OF THE SENATE INDIAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE
SUBJECT: MATTERS OF INDIAN AFFAIRS
CHAIRED BY: SENATOR BYRON DORGAN (D-ND)
WITNESS: SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR KEN SALAZAR
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SEN. DORGAN: I'm going to call the hearing to order. This is a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. We have other colleagues who will join us, but in the interest of the Interior secretary's time, we want to begin on time.
I am honored to welcome the Honorable Ken Salazar, who is the secretary of the Department of the Interior. And I understand from Mr. Secretary that this is his first formal appearance before the U.S. Senate since his confirmation on January 20th. And I want to say -- and I know I speak for my colleague Senator Barrasso -- that I was honored to vote affirmatively on the confirmation of Senator Salazar. I think he's going to be a great secretary of the Interior.
And in that job, he has the solemn responsibility of carrying out our nation's treaty and trust obligations to federally recognized Indian tribes. While the trust obligation is government-wide, the Interior Department is the principal agency that is charged with meeting the government's responsibilities to American Indians.
The government-to-government responsibility -- or relationship, rather -- that exists between the United States and Indian tribes stems from some of the oldest documents that helped form this union.
Debates of the Continental Congress acknowledge the sovereign status of tribes. The debates contemplated trade and commerce agreements with tribal governments. And those discussions carried over into the formation of the Constitution for this country.
The sovereign status of tribes is prominently acknowledged in the Constitution's commerce clause. That clause recognizes that Congress, quote, "Has the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations among several states, and with Indian tribes."
In our part of the country, most tribes refer to the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie as the governing document for their relationship with the United States. Fort Laramie was located in the Wyoming territory, the state of our distinguished vice chairman.
That treaty established reservations not only in Wyoming, but in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana. And in that treaty, the United States made specific promises, explicit promises, to provide for public safety, education, health care and the general welfare of the reservation communities.
It is safe to say, I believe, that we have not met those responsibilities. Some of the highest unemployment in our nation exists on reservations, and including the reservations of the Northern Great Plains states.
We have, I believe, a crisis in Indian health care, with 40 percent of the needs unmet. Sixty percent of the needs are being met. Forty percent are not. In any part of this country, they call that health care rationing. And it should be front-page headline news, because it is scandalous.
We have very significant challenges in Indian education, and significant challenges in Indian housing issues. And we need to do better as a country to meet our obligations. We've made promises, we've signed the line in treaty agreements, and we have trust responsibilities.
It is -- I have used the word "shameful" -- that in three of the last four years, I believe, we have not even had an assistant secretary of Indian Affairs. That position has been vacant. That is not a good way to discharge our responsibilities.
That burden doesn't fall on the shoulders of Secretary Salazar. He has only been in this position for a couple of weeks. And we call him before this committee and appreciate very much his willingness to come to the committee today to talk about the challenges and the obligations, and talk about his stewardship as secretary of the Interior, and the opportunities has to address some of these issues.
We will be interested in talking to him about, I'm sure, education, health care, law enforcement, which I have not mentioned, and a good number of other issues. I will especially be interested in talking to him about the assistant secretary position, because I think it's important we have good leadership and continuity.
I thank Mr. Skibine for filling in as acting -- while we have been waiting for this change and for the selection of a new assistant secretary as well.
Having said all that, Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being here today. We appreciate the opportunity to hear your thoughts, and to ask you some questions.
And let me call on the vice chairman, Senator Barrasso, for comments.
SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R-WY): Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Good morning, Mr. Secretary. I'm delighted to have you here. I look forward to hearing from you on your views and priorities regarding Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior.
First of all, let me say how pleased I am to see that a fellow Westerner, a former member of the Senate, is going to be heading up the Department of Interior. I want to congratulate you on this new position, and note that not only has the secretary been a colleague during my time in the Senate but really a true friend, and a friend to the people of Wyoming and to the West. And I'm very pleased that you're here.
It would be very difficult to find a better, more qualified person to take over the important work that's being carried out by the Department of Interior at this time. So I look forward to working with Secretary Salazar during this Congress, not only to address the many challenges that Indian country is facing -- and there are many, some old, some new -- but also to assist Indian country in opening its doors to thoughtful, planned and sustainable economic development.
I may be new at this job as vice chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, but regardless, I'm a firm believer in the notion that a healthy, vibrant, educated community isn't possible without opportunities -- opportunities for individuals to earn a good living, and without high levels of employment.
So, Mr. Chairman, as you and the secretary are both well aware, the Western United States is home to vast energy reserves, many of which are situated on tribal lands. And we've talked about this before in this committee. Development of our domestic energy resources is critical to our country's energy security, and it also happens to create good paying jobs, which, in turn, create robust local economies.
Indian lands have tremendous potential for energy development. Not all tribes have these mega-casinos. And this is especially true of the tribes in the Intermountain West and the Great Plains.
Some tribes in these areas have been blessed with mineral and energy resources, which, if developed with care and with planning, could play a major role in turning around the local economies in reservation communities.
This is certainly the case for the Wind River Reservation in my home state of Wyoming, and for other reservations as well. So -- for example, the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development at the Department of Interior states that while Indian lands comprise only 5 percent of the total lands of the United States, they contain nearly 10 percent of the United States' energy reserves, with 15 million acres of undeveloped energy resources. These tribes need a secretary who will help them realize the potential of their energy, mineral and other natural resources.
Another critical area that has been neglected for far too long is law and order on Indian lands. And the chairman and I have had a chance to visit with that -- about that last week.
The current law enforcement statistics in Indian country are unacceptable. On the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, there are usually more than -- there are usually no more than two full-time police officers on 24-hour duty for an area that is nearly the size of Connecticut.
Mr. Chairman, I am sure you would agree that non-Indian communities would not tolerate such a low level of protection. There's no reason that Indian communities should expect anything less than other communities in the way of law and order and public safety.
So I applaud the chairman for your efforts in the 110th Congress to improve law enforcement and public safety in Indian country, and look forward to working with you and with Secretary Salazar toward that end in the 111th Congress.
So I want to thank you, Mr. Secretary, for your willingness to be here today, for your willingness to serve. And I'm looking forward to hearing your views and recommendations on these and other issues.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. DORGAN: Senator Salazar, thank you.
Mr. Secretary, I know you have served on many committees here in the Senate. And I know that perhaps on some committees they have a lot of long, ponderous and tortured opening statements by every member of the committee, so that we could have witnesses come and listen. And you've served on committees where there are no opening statements, other than the chairman and the ranking member.
So let me ask my colleagues if they would have one-minute statements, so that we can get to the secretary.
Let me call on my colleague Senator Johnson.
SEN. TIM JOHNSON (D-SD): Thank you, Chairman. Thank you, Chairman Dorgan.
Secretary Salazar, welcome back to the Senate. You are a good friend, and I appropriate your coming here today.
Mr. Secretary, as we move forward with the new administration, I would like to extend an invitation to you to visit South Dakota and see firsthand the many issues that face our reservations and Indian communities.
As you know, five of the seven poorest counties in the U.S. are reservation counties in South Dakota. I look forward to working with you and again want to thank you for your testimony today. Thank you.
SEN. DORGAN: Senator Murkowski?
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I don't need to hear myself talk. I'm here to hear the secretary speak this morning.
I've made the invitation to you to join us in Alaska, so you can come and meet some of over 200 federally recognized tribes in Alaska. I know that we will have an opportunity to educate you more on some of the particular challenges that we face up north, and I look forward to that opportunity.
But more important -- more timely this morning to hear your views and comments before the committee. Thank you.
SEN. DORGAN: Senator Tester?
SEN. JON TESTER (D-MT): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Secretary Salazar, it's good to have you here. And I will tell you that it's a little odd to call you "Secretary Salazar," so it's going to take me a second. If I slip a "Senator" in now and then, you'll have to forgive me.
The challenges -- well, let's put it this way: Where there are challenges, there are opportunity. There is a lot of opportunity in Indian country right now, because the challenges are great.
The list is long. The chairman and ranking member went over them. All I will say is that I've been somewhat critical of the bureaucracy that you're going to be overseeing. And I know that you will be able to get good people in good positions and hold them accountable for the jobs they do. We have responsibilities here that we need to take seriously. I know you will. It is great to have you here, Secretary Salazar.
SEN. DORGAN: Senator Udall?
SEN. TOM UDALL (D-NM): Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Secretary Salazar -- great to have you here. You're a good friend. We served as attorneys general. And I know that you've taken an interest, in all of our public life, in Native issues. So I look forward to working with you on that.
Yesterday, the National Congress of American Indians' president gave a speech on what -- four areas that -- of concern to Native communities. And I think he hit the nail on the head. He's -- he's a New Mexican. He's the head of our All Indian Pueblo Council, a gentleman by the name of Joe Garcia. And he said, first, we need economic development in Indian country, and for the inclusion of Indian country in the new administration's economic recovery efforts; second, the need for reauthorization and improvement of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act; third, high crime rates and a dilapidated system of prisons and jails need to be fixed; and, fourth, a struggling education system with consistently low scores and crumbling schools.
So you're a part of this new administration, and you're part of the new hope for Native Americans. And all of us look forward to working with you closely to make sure that their dreams are fulfilled.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I hope to put the rest of my statement in the record, because I wanted to keep it to one minute, just like you asked.
SEN. DORGAN: Without objection.
Mr. Secretary, thank you for being with us. And we would be happy to hear your testimony, and then begin some questions. You may proceed.
SEC. SALAZAR: Thank you very much, Chairman Dorgan, for inviting me here, and to Ranking Member Barrasso -- thank you for both of your kind comments, as well as to all of my -- I think you will always be my colleagues. They say, "Once a senator, always a senator."
So, Senator Murkowski, Senator Johnson, Senator Tester, Senator Udall, you are all my friends and my colleagues. And I very much look forward to working on the many challenges that we do have.
I think Senator Tester, perhaps, said it well, for he said there's lots of opportunity in places where there are lots of issues and lots of problems. And, indeed, when we talk about the issues that we face with Indian country and our Native American agenda, there are lots of issues there and lots of work to be done.
I was asked by Chairman Dorgan to come before this committee some time ago, and we were not able to do it before the Senate confirmation process, which I think took place on January 20th. And so this is my first appearance before a committee in my formal capacity as secretary of Interior.
And I think it is fitting and appropriate that I am before this committee, which is a committee that provides such a strong voice for the first Americans of the United States of America. So I appreciate the invitation, and I look forward to the discussion this morning. And, more importantly, I look forward to the days, weeks, and years ahead, where we will confront the challenges that we face across this country with Native American communities. And we'll do that together.
Let me say at the outset that I think one of the things that the committee and Native American communities and leaders around this country should very much understand is that the nation's first Americans are going to have a place at the table under President Obama's administration. He was very clear about that as he went around the country in his campaign. He has been very clear about that with me. And we will make sure that the issues of Native Americans are of high priority within the Obama administration. It is a high commitment by the president.
Indeed, this last week, the first lady, Michelle Obama, visited the Department of Interior. And one of the things that she spoke about is that there would be a position in the White House that would also help us in terms of putting the spotlight on the needs and issues of Native American communities. So we will work on it to make sure that it happens.
Let me make five or six points at the outset, and, then, hopefully, just engage in a conversation with you. I do have a more formal record -- statement for the record. And I will submit that --
SEN. DORGAN: Without objection, we'll put the full statement in the record.
SEC. SALAZAR: -- for the record.
Let me say, first, I think that it is important for me, as secretary of Interior, to make sure that the positions that we have in the Department of Interior reflect the face of America. I am committed to having a face of the Department of Interior, from top to bottom, that is reflective of the face of America. And in that context, we are very close.
I have selected a person to be the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. The vetting is under way. It is a name which is a fame name across Indian country, who will help us in dealing with many of the challenges and issues that we confront.
But I will not stop with the president's appointment and the Senate's hopeful confirmation of the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. It seems to me appropriate and proper that we move forward and make sure that Native Americans are also included in other positions.
And I do have offers. And we are currently going through the vetting process to Native Americans for the position of solicitor general for the Department of Interior. It will be the first time in the history of the department that we have a Native American who will serve as solicitor general for the Department of Interior.
I also have made an offer to a Native American who will become the commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation within the Department of Interior.
Those are non-traditional positions for Native Americans to hold within the department. But I think the people that we have here, that we, hopefully, will get confirmed by this Senate in the next month or two, are the kind of 800-pound gorillas that you want to work on the major problems that face the Department of Interior.
So I want to say that at the outset in response to Chairman Dorgan's long-standing concern about the failure of the last administration to fill the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs for a period of up to four years.
Let me speak to four issues. They were the issues which I think the -- Senator Udall, you spoke about -- which were referred to yesterday in statements that were made by our Native American leaders.
But, first, I understand the importance of economic development. You know, when you look at the statistics where you have reservations that have unemployment rates as high as 80 percent, where the per capita income for many of our Indian communities are half of what it is for -- for the non-Native communities, it is clear that we have some major economic development challenges across Indian country. And I'm hopeful that that will be one of those areas that we can work on, that we can bring about new economic development opportunities for the Indian communities across our state.
I believe the economic stimulus package, which I know some of you on this panel are supporting -- some of you have concerns about the package -- but nonetheless, I think when that package comes across the finish line, there will be a significant infusion into Indian country that, hopefully, will help us deal with some of the economic development challenges that we face in Indian country.
But I do intend to work with my assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, and with the programs within the Department of Interior to put a spotlight on creating economic development opportunities.
Secondly, energy development: We all know, in this committee -- and many of you who are here, who serve on the Energy Committee -- the challenge that we face on this signature issue of the 21st century. And we will move forward with a very robust agenda that will develop a comprehensive energy plan for the nation.
It will involve the use of our conventional resources -- oil, gas and coal. But it also will move us forward, to usher in a new frontier of renewable energy. And as we move forward with that agenda, it's going to be very important that that whole agenda is one that is fully shared by our Native American communities.
Many of our best places for the development of wind energy and solar energy, for example, are found right in the reservations. And that, coupled with the already robust resources that are being developed in many of our reservations around the country, creates significant economic development opportunities for our Indian tribes.
Third, the issue of education: You know, for me and many of you who know my own story, you know that I strongly believe that education is a keystone to everything else.
In my own family, you know, all eight of us in my generation became first-generation colleges -- first-generation college graduates. All of my siblings became first-generation college graduates.
And I'm here today as secretary of Interior in large part because of the educational opportunities that I had. I want to provide those same kinds of opportunities to the first Americans of our country. And so we will work hard to make sure that that happens.
We have about 50,000 students in 183 schools in reservations around the country. We have major problems in those schools, including performance in those schools, including dilapidated buildings. And our hope is that we'll be able to put significant energy behind creating opportunities for the young people who attend -- who attend those schools.
Four, law enforcement. You know, I understand very much what happens with lawlessness in reservations. In my own state, with the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes, we've had experiences over the last 10 years, during the time that I served as attorney general, as well as during the time that I have served as a United States senator, where we have seen, frankly, the rule of law essentially abandoned, especially in one of those reservations.
And so we have brought in resources that have included partnerships with the FBI and local government to address some of the shortages that we have with respect to enforcing the law on those reservations. There is no reason why we cannot do more. And I will be working closely to develop a program that focuses in on the law- enforcement issues.
I know from some of my friends in Indian country -- they have told me that methamphetamine is the scourge of the Indian reservations across the entire country. Some have said that -- I mean, if you think about the level of usage and the scourge that it's creating in the reservation -- that it is the number-one problem on the reservations today.
So we need to do a lot more with law enforcement. I look forward to working with the tribes, as well as working with our law- enforcement authorities, both -- at the federal, state and local level, to see how we can bring about additional resources to make sure that the rule of law is upheld.
And, finally, I'll comment on the trust status and some of the trust issues that have been raised, which have been problematical for past administrations, both Democrats and Republicans, both in my -- two of my successors in the last 12 years have been held in contempt of court for the management of the trust assets of the Native -- the Native Americans under the trust responsibilities of my department.
The Cobell litigation is an outgrowth of the frustration with the management of those assets. We will try, in the months ahead, to see whether we can bring that litigation to a conclusion. But as important as that litigation may be, it's also important that we manage the trust assets in an appropriate manner. And we will commit the energies of the department to make sure that we get that done.
So, in conclusion, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, I very much look forward to working with you. I believe that, as we look at all these challenges that we face, we all know that you can't wave a magic wand and all of a sudden the issues will be resolved. It is going to take a steady hand and a long-term, sustainable commitment to address these issues, whether they range -- whether the -- it's the issue of law enforcement, economic development, health care, or the rest of the issues that we talked about.
But I'm convinced that, in partnership with you and in partnership with the tribes of America, that we can make a difference, that we can help change the world. But as we change the world, it's important that we also change the world in a positive way for the Native American communities of our country.
SEN. DORGAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your comments and your thoughts.
Let me begin by saying I don't intend to tarnish the Bureau of Indian Affairs completely. (Laughter.) But I do have great difficulty with the BIA. I think it is unbelievably bureaucratic, very difficult to move on things. And I won't give you all the evidence of that. But I hope you will tip that agency upside down, shake it, and then set it back upright and see if we can rearrange it and make it work.
And you -- and part of that, of course, is selecting the right assistant secretary, getting somebody in place. Again, I know there are some wonderful people that work in the BIA. But I could tell you stories that would just -- that'd just make you furious, about the lack of things getting done over there. And it's just big, bureaucratic, and not very workable.
I'm going to put up -- I'll give you one example. I'm going to put up a chart, I think, that shows oil development on -- it -- this happens to be something I'm working on. And, by the way, thanks to George Skibine and others, who made some progress on it.
But oil development -- you'll see, in the middle there, the Indian reservation is the gray. All the other marks there -- the yellow and green -- that's all oil wells that have been dug in the Bakken shale, the biggest oil play in America.
You'll see there's oil wells drilled north, west, south. The problem is that big old blank space in the middle. They're not drigging -- digging many wells now -- or drilling many wells. Why? Because there's a 49-step process to get a permit. You got four different groups IN the Interior Department that have to sign off: BIA, Minerals Management, BLM, Office of Special Trustee.
The result is all this oil development's going on, and the place where it is most needed, and where oil exists under that ground -- it's not happening very much.
Now, we made some progress. I've been pushing in recent months. We finally have made some progress on a virtual process and so on. And I appreciate that. But I tell you this only to say that, in the absence of somebody saying, "Look, there's something massively wrong here " -- you've got a 49-step process with four agencies, you know? So it is just such an apt description of what's wrong.
I was at an Indian reservation some while ago. They showed me a building that had been built, a beautiful building. I think it was three or four stories -- maybe three stories high -- completely vacant. And I said, "Well, why is -- why is -- why are there no tenants?" They said, "Well, we've been waiting for the BIA to sign -- the BIA to sign the lease."
I said, "How long you been waiting for the BIA to sign the lease?" "Well, about a year, year and a half." Paper's in; just didn't get it done. So that big old building on the reservation sits empty. Well, enough about that.
It's going to require effective, strong leadership to change the culture, in my judgment, in the BIA. You've described someone that you're vetting as -- for assistant secretary. I understand that you're confident this is a person who can do that job. You're right that three of the last four years, it's been vacant. And you feel -- let me -- let's just say it again -- you feel confident you're on the trail of the right person to lead the BIA?
SEC. SALAZAR: Well, let me -- let me just say that we have -- I have been serving as secretary of Interior only since the 21st of January. At this point, I am the only person confirmed by the U.S. Senate to run the Department of Interior. It is a big department, with many bureaus and many agencies, 67,000 employees. And there's a lot of work to be done.
So we're spending a lot of time getting our team together. But we are searching for the best talent in the United States of America. And I'm confident that the talent that we will bring in will be able to provide the kind of organizational changes that you allude to.
The 49-step process that you allude to is, I think, absolutely abysmal. And it's something that needs to be fixed. And we will give it a high priority.
Laura Davis (sp), who is not subject to Senate confirmation and is an associate secretary already, is working on trying to move forward to address the particular issue with respect to the permitting delays on the reservation that you spoke about, Senator Dorgan.
So we are on the case. And I recognize that one of the realities that we have to do is to take a look at what we have inherited and try to make changes to make it work better.
You know, the issues of Native Americans ought not to be partisan issues. They ought not to be Democrat or Republican issues. But there is a fact that, without an assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in place for three of the last four years, many of these issues have simply not been addressed.
And so we will be addressing them, especially as we get our feet on the ground and start getting our management team in place.
SEN. DORGAN: The economic recovery act will almost certainly pass the Congress by week's end. And that has about, I believe, $2.8 billion of funding for a range of issues on Indian reservations. And it deals with, particularly, construction projects, detention facilities, and a range of issues that will put people to work and also construct some long-delayed projects.
And I assume that you are working with your staff in order to be able to implement that and put the money out in a way that puts people to work and begins to address some of those needs.
SEC. SALAZAR: We are, indeed.
From our -- from our point of view, the infusion of the economic- stimulus money is about creating jobs. But also, beyond creating jobs, it's about creating some sustainability on some of these issues that confront us, whether it's in the world of the Native American community or whether it's on energy issue -- or other issues.
And so we are working hard on it. We are very aware of the opportunity that is presented to us. And it is for that reason that, even yesterday, I was probably having 10 conversations with different people about helping us get the team in place. Because it's difficult, frankly, to move forward with a program that is as robust as the one that we have in the economic-recovery program when we need to have people to make sure that we can implement, in a quick fashion, the opportunity that is presented to us.
SEN. DORGAN: Mr. Secretary, we are going to be doing some listening sessions around the country with tribal leaders and tribal members.
We're also going to do some tours of some Indian reservations. And we hope, perhaps, to invite you on a tour someplace down the line, to join some members of this committee to go out and tour some reservations and meet with some tribal members.
I also want to make a point that we have -- we're going to continue to make Indian health care and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act a significant priority of this committee. That's over in Health and Human Services, with respect to the federal agency.
But the other piece that we are working on, and we began in the last session, is this law enforcement piece. We have such serious problems in law enforcement across the country.
On the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, we have violent crime that is five times the rate of the national average. It's the size of the state of Connecticut -- has nine full-time police officers that are supposed to patrol an area the size of Connecticut. So an urgent call that comes in to law enforcement from someone who has just been raped, or the victim of a violent crime -- they might have the law- enforcement folks show up 10 hours later, 12 hours later, maybe the next day.
It is a very serious problem. And we're taking it seriously. And we put together a piece of legislation that is bipartisan. I believe we had 12 or 15 -- I think 15 -- 12 colleagues, rather -- sign on.
And we want to work carefully with you and your organization, the (BI ?), because we have to fix it. And it requires some resources, but it also requires some reorganization as well. I wanted to just mention that to you.
The key, I think, for all of us, is to work together, as you assume the reigns at the interior, and we try to focus on some of these critical issues.
I do want to mention that we've been joined by Senator Johanns. And we welcome you to the committee. And we're pleased you're here.
And we load this committee with folks from the Northern Great Plains, as you know, who have a very significant interest in these issues. Let me call on the vice chairman.
SEN. BARRASSO: Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I appreciated your comments. I'm delighted that you're currently vetting someone for assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a position that was too long vacant. I'm delighted to hear your comments about the importance of economic development, energy development, education, law enforcement -- one right after another.
And I want to echo so many of the comments by Chairman Dorgan. I agree completely with him, in addition to the issues that we're going to address with Indian health. So I'm looking forward to working with him.
Like all of the members of this committee, I have experience within our own state of concerns on the -- in the Wind River Reservation, there is an irrigation system. And the GAO reported in 2006 that there was over $84 million in deferred maintenance.
Congress appropriated $3 million for this in fiscal year 2006 and 2007. The state of Wyoming -- and I was in the state legislature -- provided a matching amount, another $3 million for repairs. There still appears to be delays and difficulties in spending draw-downs from the BIA for the project repair and maintenance.
And I was going to ask you or your staff to look into this and ensure that the department will cooperate and coordinate better with the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes to complete the irrigation project repairs in a timely manner, for money that's already been appropriated. So if I could ask you to look into that, Mr. Secretary, I'd appreciate it.
The -- we talked about law enforcement and we talked about education. And you mentioned your own family experience, which is the same as my own in terms of how important education was. Safe schools, to me, is the key. And that plays into both the issue of education, as well as into the issue of law enforcement.
And we both make the analogy of the state of Connecticut. And we have two officers in an area that way. So it can be 12 hours or the next day until someone can get there.
So I would ask that you also try to address the issue of school safety in -- as part of the -- both education, as well as law enforcement. And I don't know if you have any thoughts on that, or how you seem to -- want to pursue these issues in a timely manner. Mr. Secretary?
SEC. SALAZAR: Senator Barrasso, I appreciate the questions.
Let me just say, on school safety, you know, obviously, I was the attorney general on April 20th of 1999, when the bloodiest school shooting in America took place, right in my state. And so I've spent a lot of my time in public service, actually working on trying to create safe schools and have ideas about how we can take the blueprints of the kinds of plans that have been created at the University of Colorado for school violence prevention and the like and try to implement those. So we will look at that in connection with the creation of safe schools.
The Wind River Reservation and the water project -- let me take a look at that, and have my staff look into that, and see where we are and how we might -- and where we might be helpful.
And, if I may -- just reverting back to -- Senator Dorgan raised the two issues on health care and on law enforcement. Your eloquent speeches last year will never be forgotten by me, as I sat in the chair, and I heard you describe the reality of the dismal health care conditions in Indian country. And though it is not in my department, there is a role that I will play there. And, indeed, even in the last week, I've talked to members of the House of Representatives of the importance of that particular legislation.
And on law enforcement -- you know, I think that the experience that I bring from law enforcement, as well as the experience that my chief of staff, Tom Strickland, will bring to the law-enforcement issues will be very helpful. Tom Strickland served as the United States attorney for Colorado. He knows these issues in terms of the partnerships that need to be brought together.
And so it will be of high, high priority for my administration to deal with the law-enforcement issues that both of you mentioned.
SEN. BARRASSO: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. DORGAN: Senator Tester?
SEN. TESTER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
And I want to tell you what a pleasure it is to have you here today, Secretary Salazar. I -- there are tons of issues out there. The chairman and ranking member have delineated them pretty well. I'm just going to -- I'm just going to touch on a couple that are pretty big, from my perspective.
One of them is the Indian water settlements. And we've got two authorized in the state of Montana. I think there's four others in the country that are pending, here, in Congress -- and just wanted to know your perspective on those water settlements.
And I know your focus right now -- so it's kind of unfair -- but your focus right now is building a team. And I appreciate that. And I really think that that's critically important. But as you look out, I mean, where do you see these water settlements, as far as a completion of them? And, basically, what I'm going to ask you in the end is is it -- is there -- is there going to be -- is the department going to take an active role in trying to -- in trying to help us get these water settlements through?
SEC. SALAZAR: Senator Tester, I thank you for your friendship and your guidance on so many issues, including on this issue. And we will -- I recognize there are four or five, perhaps six settlements that are in the offing, some of which had been introduced in the prior Congress. And they will be of high priority for me. I -- well, there may have been other secretaries of Interior, but I've worked on many of these settlements myself, including the one that resulted in the Indian water rights settlements in Colorado.
Colorado stands, I think, almost alone as a state where we don't have any issues with our Native American tribes, because we were able to resolve these settlements. I know they are complex and difficult and expensive, but some of them have dragged on for too long -- decade after decade after decade -- without any kind of resolution.
So when you get to the point where you have the dynamics of the possibility of a settlement, I think it's important for there to be leadership, including the leadership of the secretary of Interior, to try to get it across the finish line. And so we will pay attention to them. We will make sure that we have them prioritized.
In fact, last night, I was having conversations about someone who might be a special counsel, just on Indian water rights settlements, that will work within the secretary's office. So it is high on our radar screen.
SEN. TESTER: Thank you very much.
The tribal recognition process is an issue that -- I mean, it needs improvement, from my perspective. And let me give you an example.
We've got a band of Indians in Montana called the Little Shell that actually started in 1978 trying to get recognition, shortly after the bill that was passed to allow the process to -- for a tribe to achieve recognition. Over the last 31 years, they have been -- had information requested of them, which I think is appropriate. But it's gone on and on and on. And, actually, it was about a month or two ago I thought maybe we were going to finally get a decision. And it's been delayed for another six months.
I think the chairman has said before -- and I agree with him -- I'd like to see the process work. I don't really want to see Congress have to intervene for recognition of tribes.
But the truth is, from my perspective, it shouldn't take 31 years for a tribe to get recognition. Do you think -- and I'm -- alls I'm asking for is an answer -- (chuckling) -- yes or no. Do you think there's things that you can do to speed up this process of tribal recognition to make sure that, number one, the information, when they get the information -- I don't know why it's continually put off; I don't -- but they can ultimately come to a conclusion and make a decision? What's your perspective on the tribal recognition process, and how do you see it moving forward under your leadership?
SEC. SALAZAR: Senator Tester, I think that when one has to wait for a process that lasts 31 years to get an answer, that it is too long. And so I think this is an area which needs examination to determine what it is that we can do to try to improve it. It's a complicated issue. It is not a simple issue in terms of tribal recognition, and the legal implications of that, that result from that kind of recognition.
But there is no reason why we should have a process that essentially just ends in an endless road year after year after year. And so we will take a look at the process and see if there are ways in which we can improve upon it.
SEN. TESTER: Okay. Thank you.
One other thing -- and like I said, when I first got to this committee, when I first got this appointment, I met with a group -- I can't remember where -- one of the hotels -- and I said, you know, "What are the issues?" And they started laying out the issues. And finally, after about 10 minutes, I said, "Stop. We've got to prioritize, because you've got too much stuff." And that's kind of the way this committee could be. I mean, there are so many issues out there, as you know full well, that we could literally spend all day talking about the challenges in Indian country.
I do want to talk about the first thing that you talked about, as you referred to Senator Udall's statement on economic development and how critically important it is that we get the -- the unemployment rate down, and we get the business community cooking in Indian country. What role do you see tribal colleges playing in the economic future of Indian country?
SEC. SALAZAR: I think tribal colleges, Senator Tester, are very important in terms of creating the kind of educated workforce that is needed to bring about that kind of economic development. And I do think that many of the problems that we see on the reservations -- beyond the high unemployment rate, the dropout rates, the issues with law enforcement, the high crime rates on the reservation -- are frankly rooted in the economic condition in those reservations.
And so I think the more that we can do for education, the more that we will then be able to change about the economic realities that are faced by First Americans across this country. And so I recognize the nexus that is there.
SEN. TESTER: Well, I appreciate that.
The -- I think I'll just close with this. Before you were confirmed to this position, I made an offer for you to come to Montana. That offer is still there. And we can take a look at both what's going on in Indian country and some things that the Department of Interior has specific oversight of. And we look forward to making that happen. Thank you.
SEC. SALAZAR: Thank you, Senator Tester.
If I may, Chairman Dorgan, one of the realities of this department that I have frankly discovered in the first few weeks that I'm there is that there is a perception that this is a department only of the West. It is not a department only of the West. It is a department of all of America.
And when you think about the reach of this department, it is from sea to shining sea, and out beyond the seas, because of the Outer Continental Shelf and the 1.75 billion acres that are there.
And the Native American communities have a presence, frankly, all across the country. And they have different kinds of issues, depending on whether they are from the High Plains or from the Eastern Coast and the like.
And so one of the things that I actually find very interesting and very challenging is trying to get around to the different places where the responsibilities of the department are frankly at stake or -- and are on display. And certainly, whether it's Montana or North Dakota or South Dakota, I can think of lots of different things, from Native American issues to water projects, to national-park issues, to a whole host of things that are important in your states.
So I hope to be able to spend as much time as I can coming out to your respective states, and joining Chairman Dorgan also, perhaps, I was thinking, in North Dakota, maybe a trip out to a reservation, but also to see some of the energy projects that you and I have talked about, as well as some of the water projects.
This will become a matter of timing and scheduling, because there's also a reality -- you have to spend some time at work and getting the job done. So -- but I will try to do as much as I can.
SEN. DORGAN: Let me just, before I call on Senator Johanns to -- let me make a point on this issue of tribal recognition.
I went through a list of things we're going to work on -- health care, law enforcement, housing, education and so on -- but -- and education, tribal colleges, as my colleagues just mentioned.
This issue of tribal recognition is enormously troubling to me, because I don't want the Congress or this committee to be the arbiter of who should be recognized and who shouldn't be recognized. That is a job that should be done by the Interior Department, through a process that we've described in law, and you've -- for which you've written some regulations in the Interior Department.
But my colleague from Montana is absolutely correct. Mr. Skibine knows that we have complained about this for a long while -- here, from this Congress -- that this -- the system isn't working. We really do have in many cases 20, 30, or longer years in which tribes file petitions and never quite get an answer. And it gets delayed and delayed and delayed.
And it's just -- it is not working. And perhaps on your watch, we can make this system work, so that we have a recognition system at the agency that will actually function and get a final resolution to these issues.
I don't want us -- we've got the Lumbee tribe, some Virginia tribes, Little Shell. We have a good number of tribes that have come to the Congress saying, "We want you to pass legislation giving us recognition."
You know, I'd much prefer that that be done in Interior. And Lumbee has a separate issue, because they're prevented from going through this process in Interior. But we want to work with you on that.
I know my colleague from Montana feels that way. And we really want to figure out how -- determine how we can help you fix this process.
In the meantime, we are going to have some hearings, and have to work with these tribes to determine: How long has it been? What's been the problem with their petitions? And do we have to move, or do we wait for the process?
So I just wanted to say that, because I think it's very important. Many of them have been waiting a long time. And many have died while their petitions have been in front of the Interior Department.
SEN. JOHANNS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Let me start out, if I could, Mr. Secretary, and speak in reference to what the chairman was talking about relative to energy and exploration. And I thought that map was very telling.
I -- this is my first hearing, so I thought it probably wouldn't be appropriate for me to stand up and cheer or yell amen or -- but the chairman is right; this takes too long. And a process that has that many steps -- I'll be very honest -- I'm not sure why people bother with it, because it's got to be so impossibly cumbersome.
So I lend my bipartisan voice here in saying this is something that really needs some attention. And you'll get strong applause on this committee if you can tackle this one.
Another thing I just wanted to offer as a suggestion, because it worked very, very well for me as a governor -- I would have an annual tribal summit. And we would work on an agenda and really put some time and effort into it.
Now, I don't know if you can do that on a national basis. But one of the things I would encourage is to go out to the states, and maybe have a tribal summit in a few states each year, where you can really zero in on those tribes and what their issues are. I just think listening is always a good thing, and they'll be very, very excited to have you there, listening.
Now, if I might zero in on a couple of things, here, health care. I'll never forget visiting a reservation in Nebraska, as governor. And I visited a dialysis center. And it was very, very nice. It had just opened, and it was doing exactly what people hoped it would do.
But as we talked about the need for that center -- and I'm drawing on memory here, but I think I was told that 40 percent of the adult population on that reservation had diabetes. It's just an enormously serious health condition, as you know. There's just -- there are just so many things that happen to a person's health if they have diabetes, none of them good.
I would really ask you for your thoughts on this, and how we might develop maybe even some kind of focused effort here to deal with this, because it's not only treating diabetes, it's what gets us to that. Is it -- is it diet? Is it alcohol abuse? What is it?
And how -- how do we get in front of this? Because this is -- this is a plague upon Indian country. And if we don't deal with this, it's hard for me to imagine these other issues that we're concerned about work very well. Your thoughts on that, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. SALAZAR: Well, first, Senator Johanns, let me congratulate you on your election -- on now, your service in the U.S. Senate. I was thinking that the last time that you and I had a conversation, I was up there and you were down here. And so it's good that -- you know that -- maybe --
SEN. JOHANNS: Let me say the view is better from here.
SEC. SALAZAR: The view is better? (Laughter.) There is life after being a secretary, see?
SEN. JOHANNS: Yes. Yes.
SEC. SALAZAR: But I am very excited about the current position that I have. Congratulations to you.
Let me just say, on the -- your concept of an annual summit, let me -- you know, that may make some sense for us. And let me try to figure out whether that's something that we can, in fact, do. And it probably would be more effective, frankly, if we did that together, where we might do that with this committee and others that are involved. And that leads me a little bit to the issue of health care.
There are some aspects of health care that we can work on within the Department of Interior, but most of that is over in HHS. And so how we work on this panoply of issues is going to require a commitment on the part of the entire administration to deal with these issues. And President Obama is committed to making sure that we change the conditions in Indian country all across the country. And so I'm certain that whoever it is that becomes our Cabinet secretary for HHS will have this as a -- as a high priority.
And I think the issue of diabetes on the Native American communities is, frankly, only more stark than it is with the rest of the nation and the problems that we have with health care. And how we move forward with health care reform, especially in the area of prevention, is something that is very important.
You know, I have seen relatives of mine, frankly, die from diabetes conditions. And there are things that can be done early on in life to try to prevent the -- all the health problems that are associated with that particular condition. So it will be something that will be on my radar screen. It will be something that I will work on with my fellow Cabinet members and with President Obama, to try to address in the great program that we need to move forward to deal with the health care crisis that we have in this country.
And like with all other problems that we're facing in America today, when you look at Indian country, the problems there are simply exacerbated over what we see with the non-Native American communities.
SEN. JOHANNS: Uh-huh. A final thought I just wanted to offer -- and it's really not a question; but it is a final thought. And I think you touched on it, and it's very good. The interrelationship between the departments is so hugely important.
And I must admit, as a Cabinet member, it took me a little while to figure that out. But once we figured it out and started pooling our resources and our talent, et cetera, things just went a lot better. And it did seem like you could kind of get through some of the red tape. And I just think anything you can do to work with the Ag. Department, Health and Human Services, will pay big dividends. And the sooner you start that, the more opportunity you have. So I think those things are just enormously helpful and very positive. And I would encourage you to do that.
SEC. SALAZAR: Yes, sir. Thank you very much.
SEN. JOHANNS: And congratulations to you. I was excited by your nomination. I think you're the right person for the job. And I'll -- I will wrap up by saying you do have some challenges, but I wish you the best. And if I can help, let me know.
SEC. SALAZAR: Thank you very much, Senator.
SEN. JOHANNS: Yes.
SEN. DORGAN: Mr. Secretary, it's probably safe to say this will be the easiest hearing you will have attended as secretary, when you finish your service as secretary. I think most of us are pleased that you're there, and wish you well.
Senator Johanns just talked about the diabetes issue, and I wanted to mention that it is a scourge and imposes such a heavy cost and heavy burden on the Indian population in this country. We do have a special diabetes program, as you know, that -- but that is -- in many ways, it's complicated. We've got that, I believe, funded through Labor-H, the -- in the appropriations process here. We have the Indian Health Service funded through the Interior appropriations process, despite the fact that the Indian Health Service is over in Health and Human Services.
So we need to find a way to see if we can bring this -- make some -- establish some order here in how we consider these issues. We will have -- when -- as soon as we have people in place and nominated and confirmed, we will have Indian Health folks in front of us and, hopefully, the secretary of Health and Human Services, as well, to talk about Indian health. But diabetes -- as you know, we have our own special -- a special diabetes program focused on reservations. It has to gain a lot of our attention and focus, because it imposes such a huge burden.
Many, many years ago, when my colleague, Mickey Leland -- the late Mickey Leland, from Texas -- served with me in the House, we went, along with Congressman Penny from Minnesota, to do a hearing out on a reservation, on diabetes. And it was a pretty unbelievable hearing. On that reservation, I believe the rate of diabetes was not double, triple or quadruple the nation average; it was 10 times the national average. It -- I mean, it is just a devastating impact on the population in Indian country. So my colleague from Nebraska is absolutely right, and we want to make that a priority in our Indian health-care considerations.
Let me complete this hearing as I started it. It is not easy to get your arms around the Bureau of Indian Affairs, just because it's a big, old bureaucracy. Probably some -- well, I shouldn't say "probably," there are some good people working there. But there are other people who, I think, view themselves as human brake pads, who try to slow everything down and stop it, if they can. So we need to -- we need to make that agency an agency that all of us can be proud of, that's on the front end of making things happen, making good things happen to address the significant problems that exist in Indian country.
All of us know that they were here to greet any one of our ancestors who showed up. They were the first Americans. And I've often said the first Americans should not have second-class health care or second-class education or second-class housing. We need to work on these issues, because we've made commitments and solemn promises and have a trust responsibility that we have not yet met.
I was so pleased when your nomination was announced, because I know your background, have served with you and know your acquaintance with these issues. You don't come to this job not having had an acquaintance with all of these issues affecting Native Americans and -- had from your service here in the Senate, and also from your service in Colorado. And so I appreciate the work that I know you will do to coordinate with this committee on so many issues. And we appreciate your attendance at this hearing today.
Yes, Senator Salazar -- Mr. Secretary.
SEC. SALAZAR: If I may, Chairman Dorgan, let me also say that I am the first to recognize that I have a lot to learn about these issues. And when I look at the collective wisdom that you bring, along with the rest of the members of the committee and the staff of this committee, we need your help. You know what the issues are, and you have spoken to them so eloquently over the years.
And ultimately, we'll be able to succeed in dealing with these issues, from health care to law enforcement to education to economic development to trust responsibilities, frankly, if we have the working relationship where we are able to steal your ideas and learn from you as we move forward. So I very much look forward to working with you.
SEN. DORGAN: Well, that's very well stated. I mean, this is not some mysterious illness for which we don't know a cure. We know the issues out there. We know how to address them and deal with them, if we commit the resources and our time and our dedication.
And I thank you for serving as interior secretary.
This hearing is adjourned. (Strikes gavel.)