What’s my take away from the White House Tribal Nations Conference? Easy. This is an administration that actually believes the United States government must represent all of the people, including American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Make no mistake: Everything is not perfect between Indian country and the U.S. as we close 2010. There are lots of legitimate complaints about how the federal government executes its responsibilities towards indigenous people. The list ranges from the failure to fully fund treaty and trust obligations to the problems associated with fixing the government’s own mistakes. (One of my favorite examples of that last point was reported out of a break-out group by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk. The policy of termination—the U.S. withdrawal of recognition and support for tribal governments—was repudiated some 40 years ago by President Nixon. Yet laws, such as Public Law 83-280, an act favoring state jurisdictional authority over tribes, remain in force and on the books.)
Let’s pull back and look at the view from where the eagles fly. Then we can see how the Obama administration is busy planting new standards.
President Barack Obama put it this way: “I said that so long as I held this office, never again would Native Americans be forgotten or ignored. And over the past two years, my administration, working hand in hand with many of you, has strived to keep that promise.”
One promise kept is the reversal of the United States position on the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “The aspirations it affirms—including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples—are one we must always seek to fulfill,” the president said.
“But I want to be clear: What matters far more than words – what matters far more than any resolution or declaration—are actions to match those words. And that’s what this conference is about. … That’s the standard I expect my administration to be held to.”
The most important part of the Declaration is that simple point; that the U.S.—indeed, any government—must meet the test of actions over words. It’s a moral standard, the proposition that governments agree to do what they said they’d do. And when they don’t? One more avenue to pressure governments to fulfill the promises already made.
There is another, practical application to this international ideal. It affirms the idea that tribal nations have a place in global governance and commerce. Tribes are, in the words of diplomats, part of the “international community.”
On the world stage, in the nation’s discourse, and even in regional and local affairs, the standard is clear: Tribes have a right (if not an obligation) to have their voices heard. Seven cabinet members attended the Tribal Nations Conference and many of those federal agencies are at least going through a process of consultation with tribes.
But beyond the specifics, a year from now the default is set for the standard of a White House exchange with tribal leaders; the next president—indeed, all future presidents—will be pressured to engage in at least a similar, and serious dialogue. (This is exactly how it worked with presidential statements on tribal self-determination. Once it was a big deal, after Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Now it is expected.)
But if the standard for consultation and engagement is high, then what of the standard for execution?
When President Obama reached the podium at the Interior Department last week nearly every person in a seat lifted a cell phone to take a picture; row after row of glowing screens, capturing the moment.
But that moment is no longer enough. A year ago it was a big deal to meet. And even more so a second year. But a year from now it will only be a big deal if there are success stories that add jobs, improve the health or educational opportunities for young Native Americans.
So what happens next? We need to chart the ideas that were either proposed or promised at the Tribal Nations Conference, then a year from now, tick off what was actually done.
As President Obama said what matters next are the actions needed to match all those words.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho.