Schatz: Congress must stop “ignoring the needs of indigenous peoples”


When Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz took the reins of the Indian Affairs Committee in February, he discovered that his employees made less money than any other Senate committee.

This realization underscored the little weight of the Indian Affairs Committee in the Senate and the challenge of getting Congress to prioritize Indigenous issues. Schatz raised salaries and hired more staff. But its ambitions are much greater.

“The way I look at the work we do is to try to understand all these injustices, where and how they happened, what the scars are, and then try to reverse them in a systematic way,” he said. he declares. “Because, remember, all injustices were imposed in a terribly systematic, thoughtful and planned way. “

Senator Brian Schatz says that aboriginal issues should be considered in every Senate committee, not just his. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2021

Schatz’s leadership on the Indian Affairs Committee comes at a critical time for the indigenous peoples of America. Members of indigenous communities such as the Navajo Nation have died disproportionately from the coronavirus. The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have drawn increased national attention to racial disparities and historical injustices against people of color.

Democratic President Joe Biden has made promoting racial equity a key administrative goal. He named Deb Haaland the first Native American chief in the Home Office.

“We are at a unique moment in American history,” says Schatz. “We have both houses and an appetite to try to redress hundreds of years of racism manifested by federal law and federal action.”

An infusion of resources

For Schatz, this primarily means pouring more money and resources into Indigenous communities. And he makes sure that includes Native Hawaiians. Before being president, he even blocked passage of a version of a federal housing bill that excluded Hawaiians.

Last week he co-introduced another version of this bill that includes money for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

So far, Schatz’s focus on fundraising has garnered praise from some leaders in the Native Hawaiian community who want more support.

“We’re really happy to see him in this presidency,” said Robin Danner, who heads the Sovereign Council of Hawaiian Farm Associations.

She hopes he will use this role to pressure the federal government to fulfill its responsibilities of trust to native Hawaiians.

Kuhio Lewis, executive director of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, said Schatz’s leadership role is already paying off.

“Sen. Schatz being in the role he’s in, already offers an opportunity for Hawaiians,” he said. “The money is coming in. Is it on par with other Natives? No, but it is. is a step in the right direction.

According to Schatz, the US bailout that was adopted in March was the “largest one-time injection of resources into Indigenous communities in American history,” and included more money for health, education and housing. native Hawaiians than over the decades.

But when it comes to the wider movement to return land to indigenous peoples, Schatz is not optimistic about what he can do.

“I am for the elimination of the filibuster,” he said. “But while it’s there, there are some things we just couldn’t get 60 votes for.”

Returning federal government land to Hawaiians is one of those things, he said.

One of the most well-known land issues facing Hawaii is whether the thirty-meter telescope should be built on Mauna Kea. During a summer of high-profile protests in 2019, Schatz has remained largely silent.

Schatz said his role in the controversy over the planned construction of the Thirty-Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea is just to encourage dialogue. Cory Lum / Civil Beat / 2015

Now he says it is a state matter which is closely linked to the history of land mismanagement on Mauna Kea.

“You also have to go further than that and understand that original sin was overthrow and that the federal and state governments had formal policies to dispossess Hawaiians of their land, culture, language and their ability to earn a living. And so if you just talk about this as a telescope… you’re kind of missing the point, ”he said.

He hopes a newly formed state commission with indigenous Hawaiian representation will help find a way forward, but said his role is simply to encourage dialogue.

“I like the idea of ​​a thirty-meter telescope scanning the sky,” he said. “I would like to find a way to make it conform to Hawaiian values.”

Schatz considers that a large part of his job is to remind his colleagues about Indigenous peoples. He said he spoke to Senate Speaker Chuck Schumer and Senator Patrick Leahy, who chairs the appropriation committee, about the importance of integrating Indigenous issues into every committee.

“I think my main goal, besides getting legislation passed through the committee and getting money for native communities, is to make sure that whether we’re doing broadband or defense or a climate policy or violence against women law, the table every time and when people think of the so-called Indian country, the natives of Alaska and the native Hawaiians, it’s not an afterthought blow, ”he said.

“We have trust and treaty responsibilities and we need to start taking on those responsibilities. And that means that the jurisdiction cannot be defined, compartmentalized in my one committee. So part of my job is to keep members from ignoring the needs of aboriginal people on a daily basis.

More representation needed

Ahead of the passage of the US bailout in March, Schatz met Biden in the Oval Office and spoke to the president about the bill and his plan to dramatically increase funding for Indigenous communities.

Subsequently, the president took Schatz aside to say that he understood and learned during his campaign the injustices suffered by indigenous communities, said the senator.

“It was a very Joe Biden moment, because even though we were both masked, he kind of got closer to me and it’s shoulder to shoulder, you know, looking me straight in the eye,” he said. he declared. “And I’ll never forget him because I felt it wasn’t just some sort of political constituency to serve, but something he felt good in his guts.”

But Schatz said the representation of Pacific Islanders in the Biden administration was “lacking” even as he acknowledged the historical diversity of the Biden cabinet.

Biden recently appointed Krystal Ka’ai, who is of Hawaiian descent, to lead a White House initiative for communities of Asian, Hawaiian and Pacific Islander descent, but those nominated by Pacific Islanders of origin Asian were largely of Asian descent.

Schatz lobbied White House officials to increase the representation of Pacific Islanders and understand that the AAPI community is not a monolith.

“The Asian American Pacific Islander category is such a big basket that it’s hardly a particularly useful way to understand representation,” Schatz said. The category is so broad that Pacific Islanders may not feel represented by someone of East Asian or South Asian descent, he added.

The performance is just one way to achieve Schatz’s larger goal, which he described as a lifelong effort.

“Over time, brick by brick, we will try to repair the damage and the scars,” he said.


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