Bills aimed at safe water in tribal communities, repealing racist laws advance after historic cabinet change

By Emily Cureton Cook (OPB)
March 24, 2021 10:36 p.m. Updated: March 26, 2021 3:48 p.m.
Volunteer Emergency Manager Dorothea Thurby of Warm Springs takes inventory of bottled water Aug. 2, 2019.

Volunteer Emergency Manager Dorothea Thurby of Warm Springs takes inventory of bottled water Aug. 2, 2019.

Emily Cureton / OPB

A federal bill to ramp up funding for safe drinking water and sanitation facilities in tribal communities advanced less than a week after a historic cabinet appointment. The money could help ease a longstanding water crisis on the Warm Springs Reservation in Central Oregon.


The bill passed through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which heard testimony from Indigenous leaders at a hearing Wednesday. Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Chairman Raymond Tsumpti, Sr. said the unmet infrastructure needs on his reservation alone exceed $40 million.

The bill would raise $62 million over the next four years for tribal water infrastructure, and would specifically direct the Environmental Protection Agency to fully finance 10 projects serving Indigenous people in the Columbia River Basin.

Tsumpti’s testimony linked the water problems in Warm Springs to chronic unemployment.

“That’s the reason why we don’t have any taxpayers to invest in our system,” he said.

Director of the Navajo Department of Water Resources Jason John said tribal water systems were not originally built by federal trust agencies to support growth and development.

“To be able to afford the delivery of water, we need businesses to be part of the plan,” John said. “It’s really hard to build businesses in the Navajo Nation because of the lack of infrastructure.”

Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores told lawmakers: “You don’t need to just throw money at the problem,” adding that more than money has held back tribal community development.

Flores cited policies and laws affecting water rights and water quality. She said water management needs to improve with infrastructure.


Committee Chair Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked her and the other three Indigenous leaders on the panel a “yes” or “no” question: Does the federal trust responsibility extend to providing sanitation facilities? The only panelist to say “no” was Tsumpti.

Committee Vice Chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, opened the hearing by citing dangerous conditions in her home state, descriptions that echoed the problems in Warm Springs.

“Boil water notices have become a way of life,” Murkowski said.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium serves 229 federally recognized tribes in the state. Interim president Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson told lawmakers it’s long been time to make a significant investment in water infrastructure.

“What we found is that infants in communities without adequate sanitation facilities are 11 times more likely to be hospitalized for respiratory infections and five times more likely to be hospitalized for skin infections,” Davidson said, citing a study by the CDC.

“Put another way: Every year, we expect that one out of every three infants in those communities will be hospitalized, simply because they don’t have running water,” she said.

The Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act languished after it was introduced in 2019 by Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats. The bill passed through the Senate Indian Affairs committee less than a week after the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history was sworn into office. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is Laguna Pueblo, now oversees the federal agencies with trust obligations to tribal governments.

In a press release, Wyden’s office said it had received a commitment from Haaland “to improve water infrastructure for Tribal Nations.”

At Wednesday’s oversight hearing, the Senate Indian Affairs committee also advanced the Respect Act, which its Republican sponsors say would repeal 11 laws that discriminate against Native Americans.

“Throughout history, Native Americans have been subjected to federal laws that are offensive, immoral, and outright racist,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota said. “In many cases, these laws are more than a century old and do nothing but continue the stigma of subjugation and paternalism from that time period.”

Laws that would be repealed by the Respect Act include permitting the forced labor of Native Americans, and allowing for children to be taken away, said Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma and co-sponsor of the bill. He called congressional action long overdue.

“I’m embarrassed that we as a nation ever had these laws in the books. I’m really embarrassed that they’re still on the books,” Lankford said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year the Western Tribal Water Infrastructure Act was first introduced. OPB regrets the error.


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