U.S. Senator Tina Smith Leads U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Field Hearing on Infrastructure in Tribal Nations in Prior Lake

MINNESOTA — U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) chaired a productive field hearing for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, focusing on how Tribal Nations can utilize funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Senator Smith helped pass this historic investment in our country’s infrastructure last fall. The hearing was hosted by Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community at the Mystic Lake Center in Prior Lake. Click here to access photos from the hearing. A video of the hearing will become available here.

“I was so excited to bring this field hearing to Minnesota to take a firsthand look at how the work we do in Washington can have a real impact on the lives of Native people,” said Sen. Smith. “The purpose of today was to uplift the voices of Tribal Leaders in Minnesota, to understand what their needs are, and how our historic investment in their communities through the Infrastructure Law can support them.”

Infrastructure throughout Tribal Nations has historically been underfunded. Signed into law on November 15, 2022, the IIJA included record investments to provide affordable high-speed internet, safer roads and bridges, modern wastewater and sanitation systems, clean drinking water, reliable and affordable electricity, and good paying jobs for Tribal communities across the country. The law provides more than $13 billion in support for these communities and allows Tribes to request billions in other funding – making the IIJA the single largest investment in Tribal infrastructure ever.

Today’s hearing featured six Tribal leaders from Minnesota as witnesses:

“We are grateful for the opportunity to showcase some of our projects and highlight some of our infrastructure that we have rebuilt on our homelands,” said Chairman Keith Anderson of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. “We look forward to working with you and the committee on mutual government to government commitments and the rebuilding of Indian country”

“I would like to talk about the flexibility to allow Tribes to use the infrastructure bill in a manner that meets our needs, and not what the government feels our needs are,” said President Cathy Chavers of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa. “We need adequate funding and resources to deal with climate change and resiliency.”

“The old joke was, you could tell where the reservation begins by where the pavement ends,” said Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “We have a lot of catching up to do and are grateful to you, your colleagues and the Biden administration for making sure Tribes were included in this historic legislation.”

“This is an opportunity for all of our Tribal leaders that can be here,” said Chairman Kevin Dupuis, Jr. of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “Hopefully, in the future, we can set this up again.”

“We have to constantly reaffirm ourselves — that we’re competent enough to develop our own infrastructure,” said Tribal Secretary Adam Savariego of the Upper Sioux Community. “The consistent story I’m hearing today is that we know what we’re doing because we are original caretakers of this land.”

“Despite various federal laws and policy that have been aimed to extinguish our people and some still on the books today, our citizenship is thriving,” said President Robert Larsen of the Lower Sioux Indian Community. “And the fact that we are still here and flourishing is a testament to the strength of our ancestors — of the devoted people. This legislation helps support our community as we continue to thrive with our goals of improving infrastructure”

The panel also featured three witnesses representing federal agencies:

“I want to note that between the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure and Jobs Act, Tribes here in Minnesota have received nearly $47 million in funding,” said Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. “This has been a historic level of investment in Indian country.”

“Allocation decisions align with recommendations from Tribal leaders from our Tribal consultation to prioritize funding for projects that have completed the planning phase and can be immediately placed into the design and construction phase,” said Acting Director of the Indian Health Service Elizabeth Fowler. “We look forward to continuing to work with Congress to make improvements in Tribal communities.”

“When it comes to building a new clean energy economy, which is the current charge of the Department of Energy, it’s a chance to hopefully go beyond catching up to actually address historical injustices,” said Department of Energy Chief of Staff for the Office of the Undersecretary for Infrastructure Jeremiah Baumann. “40% of the benefits of clean energy investment will flow to disadvantaged communities, including people of color, including Tribal Nations, including low-income communities.” 

Read Senator Smith’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery:

Good morning and welcome to this field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.  The Committee will come to order.

It is meaningful to convene this Committee Hearing on the sovereign lands of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and I thank the Tribe for their generosity in hosting us.

We are in the Minnesota River Valley, which has been the home of the Dakota people for countless generations.  This place that is now called Minnesota is the ancestral home of the Dakota and Anishnaabe people, and other indigenous people, who have lived in and cared for this beautiful part of the world for millennia.

In this hearing, it is important to understand the government-to-government relationship between Minnesota tribes and the Federal Government.  This is a relationship based on the constitution, laws and treaties between the United States and sovereign Tribal Nations, and it is our responsibility to respect and recognize these treaty responsibilities.

In this spirit, I am proud to serve and represent Minnesota’s Tribal nations and urban indigenous communities on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and on all the Committees that I serve.  This work must be taken seriously, because I have heard time and again from Tribal leaders who have been frustrated by policy decisions being made without native voices at the table.

I know that the Biden Administration understands this and has taken a strong stance that the government-to-government relationships with tribal nations will not be taken for granted.  The appointment of Secretary Deb Haaland to the Department of the Interior is historic for this reason.  We were honored to welcome Secretary Haaland to Minnesota earlier this spring, and during her visit she met with all of Minnesota tribal leaders in a historic gathering that Senator Klobuchar and I also attended, along with Lieutenant Governor Flanagan and Representative McCollum.  Being a partner for Minnesota Tribes in Washington is a great honor for me, and as a part of that that I welcome Assistant Secretary Newland, Acting Director Fowler, and Mr. Baumann to Minnesota to discuss the infrastructure priorities of Tribal Nations in Minnesota.

The last field hearing of this Committee in Minnesota took place at White Earth, where Senator Al Franken highlighted the importance of addressing the needs of Tribal schools, especially Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig [BUG-oh-ne-gay-shig] school.  In that field hearing, Senator Franken and then-Chair Byron Dorgan of North Dakota highlighted the appalling conditions at the school and others like it.  After that hearing and with some perseverance by Leech Lake and Senator Franken, the school received a $16 million grant to rebuild.  That is what happens when the government-to-government relationship works and when we have events like this.  We can start to address the historic wrongs against Native and Tribal communities.  It is fitting that our topic is infrastructure, and especially how President Biden’s Infrastructure and Jobs Act can benefit Tribal Nations.

It is fitting because the federal government has long failed to live up to its promises and trust responsibilities to provide the roads, bridges, broadband, drinking water and wastewater systems that native communities need.  For decades many Native communities have experienced the direct negative impacts of federal underinvestment and underfunding of critical community infrastructure.  Many roads in native communities are primitive or in poor condition, hurting safety and hampering economic development. Native communities lag behind the rest of the country in accessing broadband services – just 46% of housing units on tribal land have access to fixed broadband services. Native American households – particularly those on trust lands – are 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing, contributing to a significant disparity in health outcomes.

Tribal nations are rich with cultural and economic opportunities, but it is difficult or impossible to realize these opportunities without adequate infrastructure.

With these disparities in mine, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed at the end of last year is a transformational investment for all of Minnesota, and for tribal nations.  It’s the largest long-term investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness in a generation, and the biggest investment in infrastructure on tribal lands.

It is a good thing that the infrastructure bill will bring billions of dollars to Minnesota for roads and bridges, broadband, water infrastructure, and much more.  But it must work for Tribes, too.

The purpose of this hearing to understand how these transformational infrastructure investments can benefit Tribal Nations in Minnesota.  This bill has $13 billion for Tribal-specific programs and set-asides.  I am committed to making sure this funding is equitably distributed and accessible to Tribal Nations, and that it makes lasting impact.

These $13 billion will help address the longstanding infrastructure inequities in Tribal communities—inequities that impact the health, economic well-being, and safety of Native peoples.  Here are some highlights:

  • There’s $3.5 billion for Indian Health Service sanitation facilities—that will make drinking water safe and improve sewage and waste disposal systems.

  • There’s $3.8 billion for roads and bridges on Tribal lands, to make roadways safer for cars and pedestrians.

  • There’s $2 billion for broadband on Tribal lands, which will improve access to education, telehealth, and economic opportunities.

  • There’s $200 million for climate resilience, so that Tribal Nations can plan for and implement responses to climate change.

I believe this bill can be a turning point for how the federal government partners with Tribal Nations, and I will do everything I can to support the work of Minnesota Tribal Nations to access these dollars.

The Tribal leaders who are here to testify today will speak directly to their priority projects, but I want to lay out some of the broad priorities they have already shared with me and my team.

  1. First, grant funding needs to be equitably distributed and accessible to tribal governments.  Especially for smaller Tribes, applications and reporting requirements can be burdensome, and smaller tribes may not have the resources to even compete, even though their needs are great.  It is also deeply challenging for Tribes to be put in a position of competing with each other for infrastructure investments that they all need, and have been historically underfunded.  Through a robust consultation process, we need the Federal agencies overseeing distribution of funds to consider these challenges and resolve them.

  2. Second, funding needs to be flexible.  I strongly believe that these leaders and the governments they oversee, which are closest to the needs of their communities, know best what will work in their communities.  We need to listen to them and create the flexibility they need to accomplish the most they can with the resources they have.

  3. Third, Minnesota Tribes are ready to lead the way on clean energy and sustainability. We can learn so much from the smart, bold ideas Minnesota tribal nations have for tackling the climate change, reducing emissions and putting their communities at the forefront of a clean energy future.  From organics recycling to solar arrays, electric vehicle charging to PFAS mitigation, Tribes in Minnesota are ready to put infrastructure funding to use to address the existential threat of climate change.

I hope that this hearing will be an opportunity for our witnesses to engage with each other and with Congress to celebrate the opportunities for Indian Country in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and to make sure this funding is equitably accessible and distributed to Tribal Nations across the country, including in Minnesota.

Before I introduce our witnesses, I’d like to extend a thank you to Chair Brian Schatz and Vice Chair Lisa Murkowski.  Although they aren’t with us today, I am grateful for their partnership, and for allowing this important field hearing to happen in Minnesota today.  They both have a strong commitment to advocating for American Indian, Native Hawaiian an Alaska Native people.

Click here for more extensive details on how funding from the IIJA can be used by Tribal Nations.