As a member of the Indian Affairs Committee, Maria has worked to promote economic growth in Indian Country and promote the sovereignty of Tribal Nations. Maria has twice brought the Indian Affairs Committee to Washington to learn more about economic development in tribal communities. Consisting of 29 federally recognized tribes and nearly 165,000 people, the Native American tribes in Washington contribute greatly to the state’s cultural diversity, heritage, and economy. Maria has led Senate efforts to give tribal governments greater flexibility to lease land, create new business opportunities on reservations, and grow the regional economy. She has consistently fought to restore vital salmon habitats that support thousands of tribal and nontribal jobs on and off reservations. Maria worked to pass landmark legislation that strengthens the Indian Health System in Washington. She also passed legislation that enabled coastal tribes to move out of tsunami and flood zones to the safety of higher ground. 

Supporting Jobs in Indian Country

Washington’s tribes have diverse businesses that play a vital role both in Indian Country and throughout the state. As a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee since 2001, Maria has worked to ensure that tribes have the resources needed to develop sustainable businesses that serve their communities and contribute to the state economy.

Washington tribes and tribal enterprises support more than 27,000 jobs, and employment by Washington state tribes has increased by more than 50 percent since 2004. Tribes also contributed $3.5 billion to Washington state’s economy in 2011. The contributions of tribal businesses as well as economic partnerships between state and tribal governments are key to growing the Washington state economy and creating more jobs across the state.

  • Developing Local Economies: In 2009 Maria sponsored and helped pass legislation that streamlined land-leasing processes, giving tribal governments greater leverage to create business opportunities on reservations and stimulate local economies. Maria’s legislation, which was signed in to law in December 2010, removed the requirement that the Puyallup, Kalispell, and Swinomish Tribes seek the approval of the Department of the Interior for every business deal involving tribal lands (P.L.111-336).

    “Passage of this legislation will provide excellent opportunities for the Puyallup Tribe to ignite its economic development,” said Herman Dillon, Sr., Chairman of the Puyallup Tribe.“It will eliminate the risk of losing opportunities due to the lengthy approval process currently in place. It will not only benefit the Puyallup Tribe, but the Puget Sound region as well.”
  • Boosting Small Tribal Businesses: As a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Maria has worked to help Main Street small businesses grow and create jobs. In 2010, she helped to pass the landmark Small Business Jobs Act that expanded access to capital and opportunities for small businesses.

    Maria has also fought to bolster small and rural business development in tribal communities. In 2009 Maria successfully urged key Senate leaders to increase investment for emerging small business projects in Indian Country. Maria’s efforts are helping the Lummi Nation Service Organization, the Makah Tribal Council, and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Economic Development Corporation implement key small business projects and training programs. For example, the Columbia River Intertribal Fishing Commission is implementing a business plan to improve fish processing facilities, and the Makah Tribal Council is implementing a geoduck clam aquaculture small business training program to support the region’s robust aquaculture industry.

    “Assisting small businesses in rural areas is crucial for job creation, worker training, and improvement in overall quality of life.” – Senator Maria Cantwell, 5/27/10
  • Supporting Salmon Populations:  Washington is home to some of the most abundant salmon populations that support thousands of jobs across the state. For Pacific Northwest tribes, salmon are a vital part of the cultural and economic identity. Maria has led the fight to restore salmon habitats, protect valuable salmon populations from disappearing, and help keep Pacific Northwest salmon safe from infectious diseases. Maria introduced the Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act of 2011, which would support the protection and restoration of the healthiest remaining wild Pacific salmon ecosystems in North America, known as “salmon strongholds." Maria's legislation would also expand programs that identify salmon stronghold populations, which would help maintain the health of all stronghold habitats, as well as support the continued success of the Washington fishing industry by protecting stocks while maintaining fish access.

    In Washington state, two salmon strongholds in the Wenatchee and Queets-Quinault watersheds have been identified by the Wild Salmon Center as being a top concern, based on factors including the abundance and diversity of salmon populations, and opportunities for conservation in these strongholds. Under Maria’s bill, these salmon strongholds could be preserved and maintained for generations. Her bill would also expand programs that identify stronghold populations, which would help maintain the health of all stronghold areas and the continued success of the Washington fishing industry.

    “I’m very thankful that Senator Cantwell is introducing this important bill to help ensure our last remaining healthy rivers and their wild salmon stocks are protected for future generations” – Stone Gossard, Wild Salmon Center board member and Pearl Jam founding member

    In 2011 Maria played a key role in securing support for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, a critical program that provides grants to state and tribal governments to restore and enhance Pacific salmon runs. Thousands of Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund projects have been implemented throughout the Western United States. In the Puget Sound region, for example, the Nisqually Tribe has been able to restore 140 tribal-owned acres in the Nisqually watershed. The watershed is home to endangered salmon species including the chinook and steelhead salmon. The Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund has helped to restore more than 700,000 acres of fish habitat and open more than 4,400 miles of stream for fish passage since it was established in 2000.

    “These salmon recovery efforts mean everything to us tribes. Nothing less than our culture and treaty-reserved rights are at stake. It’s why we’re involved in every part of natural resources management in Washington,” said Billy Frank, Chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. “Yes, we have come a long way, and we still have a ways to go, but I believe we’re going to get there if we keep working together.”  


With the help of Pell Grants, Maria became the first member of her family to graduate from college. Maria has worked to open doors to higher education for Washingtonians, ensuring that the Native youth population in Washington state has better access to an affordable, quality education. Maria has also worked to strengthen early education programs that help improve graduation rates.

  • Enhancing Education Opportunities: Maria has worked to strengthen the Office of Indian Education to address the cultural needs of Native American students and ensure that tribes have direct input on education programs that are culturally appropriate and help tribal businesses grow. In 2011 Maria helped pass the Native Culture, Language and Access for Success in Schools (CLASS) Act, legislation that would boost tribal governments’ ability to improve low-performing schools, through a key a Senate committee (S.1262).  

    In her position in the Indian Affairs Committee, Maria has been a strong advocate for Northwest Indian College and its efforts to expand and partner with Washington State University. As one of only 33 Tribal Colleges and Universities in the nation, the Northwest Indian College serves 40 Native tribes representing 125,000 people in the Northwest.

    Through its partnership with Washington State University, the Northwest Indian College offers a Native Teacher Preparation Program and bachelor of arts in elementary teaching. This program helps to grow the Native teacher workforce and helps to close education achievement gaps at the elementary level, preventing students from falling behind later in their schooling.
  • Improving Tribal Early-Learning Education: Maria is a long-time champion of early childhood education programs such as Head Start and Early Head Start. Maria has consistently helped block attempts to weaken these programs, and in 2009 she successfully fought to expand access to early education for thousands of Washington families through Head Start and Early Head Start.

    For the 2010-2011 school year, there were nearly 1,500 children enrolled in American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start and American Indian/Alaska Native Early Head Start in Washington. The Lummi Nation was one of the first tribes ever to use these programs, which give at-risk children the fundamental tools to prepare them for school, and ultimately, to improve graduation rates.

Growing the Clean Energy Economy

  • Supporting the Clean Energy Economy in Indian Country: Maria has led efforts to enable Washington tribal communities to transition to cleaner and more diverse energy sources. In 2005 Maria was instrumental in passing the Energy Policy Act of 2005 —that—for the first time—allowed Washington tribes to use Clean Renewable Energy Bonds to invest in renewable energy resources for their communities.

    The Energy Bill also paved the way for the creation of an Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs to help tribal governments develop affordable clean energy resources by increasing access to capital for clean energy projects and by encouraging outside partnerships with tribes.   

    For example, the Tulalip Tribes used Clean Energy Bonds to launch a biogas project in partnership with non-profit Qualco Energy, the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, and Northwest Chinook Recovery. The organizations have successfully worked to turn the local bio-waste into useable biogas—creating a source of renewable energy for the whole community. The partners sought to prevent hazardous runoff from damaging local salmon streams.

    Read more about energy projects on Washington tribal lands.

    Click here for information on renewable energy training and education opportunities for Washington tribes.
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  • Promoting Self-Governance: Maria has long worked to promote tribal self-governance, which enables tribal governments to create new job opportunities, build crucial infrastructure projects and improve educational institutions. Maria has continually worked with representatives from Northwest tribes on identifying barriers that prevent tribes from meeting basic community needs— from maintaining schools, to ensuring affordable housing, to providing quality health care. She has passed laws that give tribal governments the means to eliminate these barriers and the reins to grow their economies. Maria’s efforts have helped Washington tribal governments spur job growth on reservations, invest in 21st century clean energy technology, and keep communities in Indian Country safe.

    Self-governance policies contribute to a “burst in economic development” among tribal nations, according to a recent study conducted by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Tribal governments’ investments in local infrastructure can play a key role in creating diverse, stable economies on reservations and in neighboring communities across Washington state. For example, the Tulalip Tribes have created Quil Ceda Village, which supports hundreds of jobs. The tribe itself employs more than 3,500, making it a top employer in Snohomish County, and Tulalip Tribal Council President Mel Sheldon called Quil Ceda business development a “major engine for strong economic development.”

  • Improving Government-to-Government Relationships: In 2009 Maria cosponsored and helped the Senate pass a bipartisan resolution affirming Congress’ commitment to improved relationships with the Native American community and formally apologizing for unjust tribal policies of the past. A renewed testament of federal support for Tribal Governments, the bipartisan resolution marks a major step forward in tribal relations for the whole nation. Maria is also supportive of President Barack Obama’s executive order ensuring meaningful consultation for tribes on all federal laws that have an impact on the nation’s tribal communities.

  • Protecting Tribal Heritage: Maria has been a strong advocate for preserving tribal heritage. She has worked to preserve cultural sites by supporting projects like the Elwha River Restoration Project and the Puget Sound Recovery Project. She has worked to ensure federal use of tribal lands does not destroy cultural artifacts and natural resources that encapsulate the history of Washington tribes.  

    For example, in September 2011 Maria helped to break ground on the start the Elwha restoration project, which will help restore salmon runs in the Elwha River. Tribal members will once again have access to sacred sites that have been covered in water,” Maria said, speaking at the dam removal celebration. “This is a victory for the proud heritage and culture of the Klallam. And today, we are also making a commitment to make sure our rivers, lands and waterways will be healthy for future generations to enjoy.”

    Read more about Maria’s efforts to preserve tribal heritage in Washington. 
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  • Expanding Access to Health Care: In 2010 Maria helped lead Senate efforts to significantly strengthen health care for the Native population. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act addresses key health concerns important to Indian Country—including new programs in long-term care, youth suicide prevention and improved treatment for chronic mental conditions. 

    The legislation bolstered the Indian Health Service, expanding access to quality care for underserved Native populations and giving Indian Health Service greater flexibility to implement programs critical to the health of Native communities. It also authorized programs to increase recruitment and retention of health care professionals for Indians and Alaska Natives. The bill encourages Native Americans to get involved in the medical field through mentoring and loan programs and workplace support systems. In 2010, Native students made up less than 1 percent of the 77,000 total medical students. Maria championed and helped to pass a provision ensuring that Pacific Northwest tribes have the same access as larger land-based tribes to programs that support building the health facilities needed to serve more patients. The Indian Health Service serves an estimated two million eligible Native Americans and Alaska Natives, according to a recent report conducted by the Congressional Research Service. Maria has fought for years to improve the Indian health care system, helping pass similar legislation through the Senate in 2008.

  • Life-Saving Treatments for Native American Women: Maria was a leader on passing legislation that provides treatment for Native American women who have been diagnosed with breast and cervical cancer (P.L. 107-121).
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Calling safe housing the “foundation for success on reservations across the country,” Maria has made it a priority to help tribal governments create economic opportunities by addressing barriers to safe, affordable housing.

Expanding access to housing is key to growing tribal economies. The percentage of the Native population living in poor housing conditions is disproportionately high.

  • Improving Tribal Housing: Maria has helped tribal governments get the tools needed to develop their economies by increasing access to safe, affordable housing in Indian Country. In 2008 Maria spearheaded the passage of legislation that improves housing conditions and helps increase access to affordable housing for Native communities. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act strengthens the role that tribal governments play in shaping their own housing policies to meet the needs of local communities.

    Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act programs help train tribal members on housing management and provide homebuyer education to help members make informed financial decisions for their households. In 2009, nearly 500 students nationwide received training for tribal housing skills, a 10.4 percent increase from the previous year. The Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act also provides opportunities free training on issues important to tribal housing such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit.

    Click here for information about Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act training opportunities. 

    Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act grants have helped tribes across Washington develop projects that stimulate the local economy, provide safe and affordable housing, and improve tribal infrastructure.  In Washington state,  Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act has helped the Swinomish Tribe to develop affordable rental homes. The Puyallup Tribe is currently undergoing a project to expand access to low-income housing through the construction of new energy-efficient housing units and a new community center.

    “ Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Acthas been a significant positive step in addressing the issue of quality and quantity of housing on American Indian Reservations,” Maria said, following Senate passage of the bill in 2008. “This bill gives tribes much more control over housing conditions, and I know this bill will make for a much more efficient and effective housing program.”
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Maria has long worked to ensure that Washington’s Tribal Governments have the tools needed to keep families in Indian Country safe from dangerous drugs, crime, and natural disasters. In 2010 Maria successfully led efforts to pass the Tribal Law and Order Act, which strengthens tribal justice programs, ensuring that law enforcement officials have the resources needed to combat violence, fight gangs, and curb crime.

Maria has also continually led efforts to protect Washington tribes from natural disasters. As a coastal state, Washington’s lands are vulnerable to damaging floods and tsunamis. In 2010 Maria helped to pass legislation moving the Hoh Tribe away from a dangerous flood zone. In February 2012, Maria was instrumental in passing legislation to move the Quileute Tribe out of a tsunami zone.

  • Delivering Crime-fighting Tools to Tribes: With violent crime on American Indian reservations much higher than the national average, Maria has made it a priority to bolster tribal law and justice programs and ensure that tribal law enforcement officials have the necessary tools to fight crime.

    In 2009 Maria cosponsored and fought to pass key legislation that improves law enforcement coordination to protect tribal communities. The Tribal Law and Order Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, combats crime by bringing together federal, state and local law enforcement with tribal law enforcement authorities.

    The Tribal Law and Order Act also improved training for tribal law enforcement officials, provided better protection and support for victims of domestic abuse, strengthened the tribal court system, and improved programs to prevent substance abuse in tribal communities.

    As the Tribal Law and Order Act was being developed, Maria listened to the testimony from several Washington state tribal officials before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Their testimony helped shape the final bill.

    Read Washington tribal officials' testimonies on the need to strengthen tribal law enforcement.

    “For far too long, Indian Country has lacked the tools it needs to fight crime and violence,”
    Maria said, after President Obama signed the bill into law in 2010. “All Americans deserve the protection of their basic rights, a sense of justice and freedom from fear. This new law will help tribes improve security and justice on our nation’s Indian reservations.”
  • Protecting Tribes from Floods and Tsunamis: Maria has repeatedly championed efforts to protect Washington tribes and their lands from the risk of devastating storms. She passed bills to ensure that the Hoh and Quileute tribes could relocate their communities out of dangerous flood  and tsunami zones.
  • Moving the Hoh Tribe to Safety: In 2009 Maria led Senate efforts to move the Hoh Tribe out of flood plains and onto safer lands. In her position on the Indian Affairs Committee, Maria cosponsored and led the passage of the Hoh Indian Tribe Safe Homelands Act, which President Obama signed into law in early 2011 (P.L. 111–323).

    “This news could not have come at a better time for the Hoh Tribe,” said Chairwoman of the Hoh Tribe Maria Lopez, thanking Maria and the Washington delegation for their leadership. “We nearly avoided yet another flooding this past weekend, and the rainy season is upon us… Words can't express the joy that I feel for our people of the Hoh Village.”

    Prior to passing this legislation, 90 percent of the Hoh Tribe’s Reservation sat in a flood plain and 100 percent of the lands sat within a Tsunami Zone. For years, flooding and storms damaged the tribe’s lands, homes, and infrastructure. Moving the tribe out of the flood plains allows the Hoh Village to safely rebuild their community and local economy.

    “For too long, the location of the Hoh reservation left the Tribe's land and homes vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature,” Maria said, after Congress passed the legislation in 2010. “With this bill, we now ensure they can safely rebuild their communities on higher lands and focus on future growth and prosperity, instead of just survival.”
  • Moving the Quileute Tribe Out of Tsunami Zone: Maria led efforts to pass legislation enabling the Quileute Tribe to protect their citizens and infrastructure from the danger of a Pacific tsunami. Maria worked with Congressman Norm Dicks (WA-6) on shepherding this legislation through Congress, and President Obama signed their legislation into law in late February 2012. This new law will allow the tribe to relocate to land outside of the tsunami zone and away from the threat of flooding from the Quillayute River. The Quileute Nation will be able to construct vital community facilities – including a school, a daycare center, an elder center, tribal government offices, and residential homes — on safe lands at higher grounds.

    “Our tribe will actually be able to move our elders and children out of the path of a tsunami and up to higher ground,” said Quileute Chairman Tony Foster, after Maria helped pass the bill through the Senate. “Our tribal school, senior center, administrative offices and elders situated in the lower village, will all benefit from the passage of this legislation. Our sincerest appreciation to Senator Cantwell for all the hard work she put behind the passage of this legislation.”

    Maria played a key role in passing this legislation, gaining approval from a key Senate committee and gaining support from a key federal agency.

    Watch video of Maria speaking on the U.S. Senate floor on the importance of moving the Quileute Tribe to safety.

    “This is an important victory for the safety and future of the Quileute Nation
    ,” Maria said, after President Obama signed the bill into law. “Every day, Quileute students go to school in a schoolhouse that is just feet above sea level. Today, we have taken the first step toward moving those students to safety. The Quileute Nation can finally move forward to proactively protect its people from the threat of a devastating tsunami.”
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