Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day by Understanding the Federal Laws That Govern Our Trust and Treaty Obligations to Indian Country
In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Natural Resources Democrats are remembering the foundational laws that uphold the rights of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities and acknowledging the work that remains to be done to strengthen the federal trust responsibility.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act (HHCA), signed into law on July 9, 1921. The HHCA created the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and established a federal land trust of more than 200,000 acres to create a permanent homeland for native Hawaiians. This legislation was key to supporting self-sufficiency and self-determination for native Hawaiians. Today the HHCA continues to ensure that native Hawaiian communities maintain their cultural traditions on their ancestral homelands.
The Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) was passed by Congress in 1976 and serves as the basis of federal health care services for American Indians and Alaska Natives, along with the Snyder Act of 1921. IHCIA’s authority is pursuant to the trust and treaty obligations of the U.S. government. Health outcomes for American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to lag behind all other U.S. populations, making IHCIA vital to ensuring the health and wellbeing of tribal communities.
The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA) was signed into law on Jan. 4, 1975, marking the end of a harmful period of federal Indian policy characterized by the termination of tribal governments and the dissolution of tribal land bases. The legislation gave tribal governments authority to administer federally funded tribal programs, including a broad range of social services operated under the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service. To this day, ISDEAA remains critical to upholding tribal governments’ sovereign right to self-determination.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was enacted in 1990 to codify the rights of tribal nations, tribal citizens, and Native Hawaiian organizations in obtaining the repatriation of cultural patrimony, funerary remains, and other sacred objects from federal agencies and museums. NAGPRA continues to serve as the most well known cultural resource protection law for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities.
The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was passed in 1978 in response to decades of harmful federal separation policies used against Indigenous families. Extensive Congressional testimony concluded that American Indian and Alaska Native children needed stronger legal protections in state child custody proceedings. ICWA mandated several guidelines for caseworkers handling American Indian or Alaska Native child welfare cases to ensure their safety and cultural stability. ICWA remains the “gold standard” for child welfare policy and upholds the unique political status of American Indian and Alaska Native children.
These laws are just a few of the statutes that have made important progress towards justice and equity for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities over the past century. The work doesn’t stop here. Legislative solutions for issues affecting American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians are critical components of Chair Raúl M. Grijalva’s policy agenda. In May 2021, Chair Grijalva introduced the RESPECT Act, which will codify tribal consultation procedures at the federal level and ensures that tribal leaders have an equitable seat at the table.