WASHINGTON – The Senate Indian Affairs Committee appeared sympathetic Wednesday to a bill that would empower Native American communities as sovereign nations and allow the return of land to indigenous peoples.

Principal Chief James Floyd of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation told the committee that the proposed amendments to the Stigler Act are essential to creating fairness for the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee and Seminole tribes.

The 70-year-old Stigler Act only allows the allotment of lands to individuals with one-half or more Native American blood. The new amendments would remove that requirement and make it easier for tribal members to acquire land.

“If not resolved quickly, we could lose everything: our land, our history, out stability and our sovereignty,” Floyd said.

The committee also considered a bill that would redraw some boundary lines in Arizona  so the Gila River Indian Community would have tribal land legally.

Darryl LaCounte, acting director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, supported the two proposals.

The committee approved an amendment to Savanna’s Act legislation that Heitkamp sponsored to update federal databases to help solve cases of missing and murdered Indians.

“I will not have a chance to see the reporting and the implementation of this legislation, but I want to encourage this committee to not let this issue slide to the backburner,” said Heitkamp, who lost a re-election bid.

When Heitkamp asked LaCounte about funding for the future improvement of the quality of law enforcement in Indian Country, he said the budget information was embargoed. Heitkamp expressed her disdain with the lack of plans for greater protection of the Native Indian tribes.

“I continue to experience a lot of frustration about the lack of a plan,” Heitkamp said.

Both the Stigler Act Amendments of 2018 and Gila River Indian Community Federal Rights-of-Way passed in the House and await a vote by the Senate.