Tohono O’Odham Leader Says Lack of Infrastructure, Capital Hinders Development

By Alexis Waiss

March 2, 2023

WASHINGTON – The vice chairwoman of the Tohono O’odham Nation told a House panel Wednesday that economic development on her remote reservation is hobbled by everything from a lack of basic infrastructure like roads and water to inadequate capital.

Wavalene Saunders said the Tohono O’odham Nation is typical of tribes in rural areas that suffer from “profound deficits in the availability of basic utilities to provide adequate drinking water, sanitation, and electricity.”

“Utility hookup in rural communities is extremely expensive, creating an often insurmountable barrier to the construction of the buildings from which economic development can take place,” Saunders said in testimony to the Indian and Insular Affairs Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee.

She was one of four tribal witnesses at the subcommittee hearing on “Unlocking Indian Country’s Economic Potential.” In addition to testimony about a lack of tools needed to thrive economically, a recurring theme was the need for greater tribal sovereignty and less bureaucratic interference.

Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., acknowledged how federal processes “can slow or in some cases halt development for years,” leaving tribal communities to bear the brunt of the consequences.

“Although tribes are sovereign governments, some suffer health, social and economic disparities, as well as higher poverty rates in comparison to other non-native communities,” Hageman, the subcommittee chair, said in her opening statement. “These disparities contribute to higher rates of unemployment in Indian Country and an underdeveloped business and entrepreneur environment.”

Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., said he shares tribes’ frustration over the obstacles they face trying to get anything approved, pointing to the slow progress on projects in his rural northern California district.

“It requires an entire piece of legislation, to move at whatever pace it moves through, hopefully within a two-year cycle in Congress,” LaMalfa said of the process. “And that’s got to be frustrating ’cause it’s year, after year, after year.”

For the Tohono O’odham, Saunders said, most projects need to go through a lengthy review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She cited a June 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office that said a review of land-use instruments like “easements, right-of-way agreements, and valuations have hindered tribes from pursuing energy resource development opportunities that could provide significant benefits.”

“We are prohibited from pursuing any of those endeavors in addressing the potholes, the cracks in the road, and our bridges and whatnot,” she testified. “It becomes a liability issue if the Nation is to continue to address those needs, and so it’s the BIA at the federal level that is technically responsible for the roads on the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

BIA approval often requires approval under the National Environmental Policy Act, which Saunders said “can be very expensive and the costs are borne by the tribe.”

Joseph Rupnick, chairman of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas, testified that the “checkerboard” ownership of land in his reservation – a system where the federal government “has done nothing more but create a mess” – has further complicated the tribe’s development efforts.

“This mess is compounded by the fact that the lands that we have retained are considered to be ‘trust’ – that is lands owned by and under the jurisdiction of the federal government,” Rupnick said in his testimony. “In my view, the idea of trust land is not normal and should be fixed to recognize that our Nation is the owner of our lands within our treaty-defined reservations and subject to our primary jurisdiction.”

Witnesses offered a variety of solutions, such as making it easier for tribes to levy taxes, letting them manage their land based on tribal laws and regulations, and passing the Buy Indian Act, which would let the Department of Health and Human Services set aside contracts for businesses controlled and owned by tribes.

Committee members appeared receptive, with some saying they were shocked to hear the hardships tribes face from lack of development, and the struggle to develop their land.

Rep. Jennifer González-Colón, R-Puerto Rico, said land is the most important resource tribes have, not just for economic growth but also for “social-cultural issues.”

“And when you got all those restrictions, there’s no way you can succeed,” González-Colón said. “So I’m happy this committee is doing this hearing to see how we can expedite and allow all the tribes to use their land.”

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-NM, said that as someone from a state where tribes are “among some of the largest employers and generators of income,” she was especially surprised by Saunders’ testimony. But she said help is on the way in the form of Biden administration policies that have “made massive investments, hundreds of millions of dollars of investments, that have not yet hit many of our communities, in terms of roads, water, broadband.”

Saunders said help is needed for her tribe, which faces the additional burden of its remote location. The Tohono O’odham Nation has more than 34,000 residents spread across a reservation the size of Connecticut, straddling the Arizona-Mexico border.

“It’s about a good 50-minute drive to the nearest city and compared to the other tribes, their cities and towns are within their backyards,” Saunders said. “For us, we can’t say that. And then we’re a border tribe, border of Mexico, we have membership in Mexico.”

Those needs were echoed by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, whose district includes the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“The critical infrastructure and economic challenges faced by the Tohono O’odham Nation and those in rural tribal communities are top priorities,” he said in a statement released by his office. “We are committed partners and will continue to work together to find opportunities to secure funding for affordable, reliable and quality public services.”

Saunders recommended more funding for technical assistance and change to bureaucratic processes like BIA review. She also said that it is important to invest in small businesses so rural tribes can become more self-sustaining.

“(Government funding) is not a fix-all because other tribes have their needs and their land bases are different,” Saunders said after the hearing. “Just because there’s funding that they need provided across Indian Country, it really varies on the infrastructure (which) is kind of the biggest cost factor for us on our reservation.”

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