While no way has yet been found to ensure that every tribal interest or issue gets enough federal attention (and how to measure that, anyway?), coalition-building by like-minded tribes has been one of the most successful strategies in recent times. As a new “big tribe” coalition is being pulled together, some tribal leaders are once again examining the obstacles of such alliances for the 565 federally recognized tribes and their sometime-divergent goals.
Leaders of the big tribes—those with larger populations compared to most tribes, like the Navajo Nation; or those with large land bases, like several in the Great Plains—often find themselves, especially in the context of how the federal government operates, having their issues superseded by those raised by the leaders of smaller tribes. This happened at both of the White House Tribal Nation Conferences held by the Obama administration, in which Alaska tribal leaders raised issues at the top of their complaint lists—rightfully so—and ate up a good portion of time in those two rather brief sessions. In turn, every second that federal officials spent addressing the unique concerns of Alaska tribal leaders on topics such as localized dental programs and Alaska Native Corporations is a second not spent addressing issues that might impact a larger portion of the overall Indian population. Alaska Natives will aptly point out that every Alaska tribe invited to the conferences was a sovereign nation, no matter how small its population, so why shouldn’t their tribal leaders have pushed for attention to their issues?
How to get individualized attention while still fighting for the good of the whole is a perennial problem facing tribal citizens in America. Looking at the number of federally recognized tribes in just two states—Alaska and California—helps illustrate the tensions here. Of the 565 federally recognized tribes, more than 230 are in Alaska and some have just a few dozen members. The sustenance plight of a remote Alaskan village is important, but has a direct bearing on only a few people. With the advent of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of the 1980s, gaming has tended to touch many more Indians, but with the greater impact has come greater tensions, especially among the “haves and have-nots.” In California, which has more than 100 federally recognized tribes, gaming has been a major divider among tribal citizens. Some tribes with small populations in the state have waged successful lobbying campaigns to protect their gaming interests at a cost, some say, to the greater well-being of every tribal citizen not only in California, but nationwide.
Given the limited attention the federal government pays to all tribal issues, frustrations can and do develop among the tribes, although you have to scratch beneath the polite, polished surface of the public positions of many tribal leaders, who prefer to present a unified front for tactical purposes. Tex G. Hall, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, explains his rationale for the tribal-unity approach: “We don’t always run things [in American society]. But one of the things in our control is our ability to lead and forge a common voice from within our own nations. That is a hallmark of leadership and one of the basic responsibilities that comes with elected office such as my own.”
The paucity of federal attention to Indian issues is an ongoing concern. “Unfortunately, Indians seem to have always had a problem getting heard on Capitol Hill,” Hall says. “The sad reality is that very few legislators, and certainly not Congress as a whole, have really ever paid attention to the bigger picture. It would be great if we actually had the luxury of being able to pick and choose the battles that we could win. But we really don’t have a sense that we are going to win on any single issue or at any particular time.”
So what’s a tribal leader have to do to get his or her concerns addressed? Forming a coalition has been the preferred answer. There’s the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which bills itself as “the oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization”; the National Indian Health Board (NIHB), which advocates for improved Indian health; United Southern and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET); the National Indian Gaming Association, for casino tribes; and many others. Some of these coalitions have had major successes, such as when NCAI, NIHB and others lobbied for reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act last year. At the same time, some tribes have been loath to join this or that coalition because of perceived slights, historical tensions and/or a firm commitment to the principle of tribal sovereignty.
Derek Bailey, the chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, says he finds the various coalitions useful for educating legislators on issues that will affect Indian country on both the micro and macro levels: “Coalition-building amongst tribes, be it regional or for a more defined purpose, definitely assists in promoting any particular agenda,” he says. At the same time, he notes that tribes have historically held differing opinions “and there is a time and place for that, but on larger issues, Indian country’s collective voice is incredibly strong. We have to continue to exercise that voice, be it as a single sovereign nation or as a collective body of sovereign tribal governments.”
Hall, who has served as president of NCAI, says no one Indian organization wants to leave anyone out, but there are many thousands of issues that lawmakers are confronted with, so everyone wants to do what they can to make sure their issues are not overlooked. “All of the tribal organizations are doing their best to represent a unique set of interests,” Hall says. “There’s a lot to be said for bringing together tribes that share some interests and have the capability of putting those interests into an educational format and a set of proposals that lawmakers and administration officials can understand.”
Even with the many tribal coalitions already in existence, there’s room for more, at least according to the tribal nations that announced a new “Coalition of Large Tribes” (COLT) organization in April. The initial group was composed of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Crow Tribe of Montana, the Navajo Nation, the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and the Spokane Tribe of Washington, with more expected to join soon. The entity, according to a press release from the tribes, “was formed to address the unique land, economic, jurisdictional and funding issues faced by tribes with large reservations, treaties and large populations.” And the rationale seems sound: “Today, many of the formulas used to distribute federal funding for roads, housing, health care, water, law enforcement, taxation, ambulance services, student transportation and land management fail to adequately account for the higher costs and unique problems encountered by tribes that occupy large geographic areas.”
The goal, organizers say, is for the member tribes to educate the Obama administration, Congress and even other tribes about their unique problems, and to advocate for
a more equitable reallocation of federal dollars. They also plan to work to ensure that federal policies, such as those encompassed within the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ newly proposed land-lease regulations, fee-to-trust policies and land-acquisition procedures adequately address issues faced by large land-based tribes. And because COLT includes tribes that are actively engaged in oil, gas, coal and other energy production, the coalition supports proposals to eliminate many of the federal policies, regulations and procedures that are preventing energy production on Indian lands.
According to the COLT founders, these tribes merit much more federal attention. “Congress and the administration need to understand that tribes with large land holdings, like those who have already joined COLT, face higher costs when they try to provide the same level of services as tribes with small reservations and smaller populations,” says Hall, who helped found the group. “Large tribes are also the ones who are most seriously impacted by federal Indian land policies.” John Yellowbird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe adds: “While treaty tribes with 100,000 acres or more comprise only a small percentage of the federally recognized tribes in the United States, they collectively represent the largest percentage of federally recognized Indian tribal members and trust land ownership.”
Well, wait a minute. If the big-tribe coalition ends up having success, couldn’t it come at the expense of smaller tribes? Hall, for one, counters that argument by saying it assumes that tribes in general are having overwhelming successes: “We have no guarantee that we are going to necessarily win on any particular issue. The problem of a coalition leaving out players is based on the assumption that there will be a string of victories, and we just don’t see that happening in practice.” He points to the recent Tohono O’odham case ruling by the Supreme Court against the tribe as an example of losses tribes continue to experience, especially in rulings by the Supreme Court.
That ruling found that the tribe cannot go forward with a lawsuit claiming mismanagement of tribal resources in two different federal courts at the same time. Tribal-law experts have said it is a setback for tribes because they end up having a mitigated ability to gain back trust assets that the U.S. mismanaged due to a whole new set of rules that the U.S. government created to seemingly make it more difficult to sue.
A. Gay Kingman, the executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and an organizer for COLT, says the concerns of small tribes are important, but shouldn’t prevent big tribes from making the best arguments they can for their issues. “The smaller tribes are more numerous, and their issues may be different, but this doesn’t mean the tribes are against one another—rather it points out what we have always tried to tell people: ‘We are not all the same!’” she says. “Out of the total number of tribes, large tribes are fewer than 200, so often they are out-voted on their issues.… I do not think smaller tribal interests will lose out due to focus on COLT issues.” Plus, she says, many other tribal coalitions address the needs of the smaller tribes.
For tribal citizens who feel they are not getting heard, Bailey suggests that the tribal leaders need to do more to make sure their voices are heard, either individually, or as part of a coalition. “The Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes (MAST) has demonstrated this leadership, but tribal leaders have to not only support but demand an increased presence,” Bailey says. “MAST, and other tribal organizations, will only be successful by having the needed support and financial infrastructure.” Bailey hammered the point home that even with tribal leaders doing their best, there will sometimes be tensions between the various tribal coalitions, some more so than others, and these tensions are not always easily addressed.
The good news is that the Obama administration seems to be aware of the vastness of Indian country and its divergent views. In December, then–Chief of Staff to the White House Pete Rouse commented on the need to do better outreach to various factions, saying that President Barack Obama would consider doing a tour of tribal nations. Various tribal leaders have also suggested a regional approach to future White House tribal meetings in order to try to streamline the ideas presented by Indian leaders to the administration. Some in the Obama administration, including Cabinet heads, like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, have expressed openness to the idea, while the White House has sent delegates around the country to meet one-on-one with tribal leaders.
Whether there is a strong and positive federal response, Hall says that above all, tribes can’t be complacent: the best outcomes for them will result when Indians remain unified around common issues, such as protecting and preserving tribal sovereignty and rights. “We are not trying to downplay the needs of smaller tribes,” he says regarding the formation of COLT, “but we need our voices to be heard, and in the past that has simply not happened.” And he believes that if an Indian coalition, regardless of its size, can make progress, it can benefit all. “Even if one coalition does not represent, issue for issue, the needs of another group of tribes, the doors that are opened can still benefit those other tribes,” he says. “This is something that all of us, especially tribal leaders, should keep in mind: We work just not for the good of our own tribal members, but the welfare of all Native Americans.”