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Tribes win right to bypass states, appeal directly to White House

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WASHINGTON – The Arizona governor’s office received a Navajo Nation request for federal emergency relief Friday, a week after the tribe issued its own declaration of emergency because frozen pipes had affected water supply to 2,000 families.

The request points to what tribes have long cited as a problem: Because the law treated them like local governments, tribes have had to ask the state government to deliver their requests for federal aid.

But that is changing.

A little-noticed provision of the $50 billion Superstorm Sandy relief bill that passed Congress this week will let tribes appeal directly to the president for disaster relief without having to go through state governments first.

Native American leaders hailed the long-sought change, which they said marks an important recognition of tribal sovereignty. The bill won final Senate approval Monday and was signed into law by the president Tuesday.

“I think it was something that was very much needed,” said John Lewis, executive director of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. He called the change a huge step toward improving relations between Native American nations and the federal government.

Jared King, the communications director in the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said the new law is “a good thing for Indian Country … because we are now being treated like states.”

“It really shows recognition of tribal sovereignty, and it reaffirms it,” King said.

Besides the symbolism of the change, tribal leaders are looking forward to practical benefits as well. Having to go through state governments to request federal relief created unnecessary delays and kept many in Indian Country from getting emergency aid in a timely manner, Lewis said. The new law cuts out the middle man.

“With this additional direct access, it could help expedite things,” he said.

Working with the state government has been especially cumbersome for the Navajo Nation, which straddles Arizona and parts of three other states, King said.

Lewis said tribal lands in Arizona are frequently affected by floods, fires and snowstorms that can cut isolated communities off from basic resources. Having to work through surrounding states to get federal assistance is just not effective, he said.

“I think (the change in the law) was something that was very much needed,” Lewis said.

Besides that, the relationship between states and tribes can be touchy to begin with because states have little to no jurisdiction on tribal lands, Lewis said.

“It should help with governmental cooperation at all levels,” he said.

A spokesman in Gov. Jan Brewer’s office said Friday that the office had just received the emergency declaration petition from the Navajo and had not had time to act on it.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to begin consulting with tribes in the next few weeks to make sure plans are in place that would allow them to access aid more quickly in the future, King said.

“It’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s a lot more than we had before.”