The first meeting of the White House Council on Native American Affairs took place July 29 without tribal leaders present.
The Council, established by President Barack Obama by executive order June 26, is intended to oversee and coordinate the progress of federal agencies on tribal programs and consultation with tribes across the federal government.
Tribal leaders have been asking Obama to establish such a workgroup since day one of his presidency. They generally support the idea of the current Council, which has roots in several other U.S. presidential administrations, but some have problems with its structure, saying it strikes them as odd that tribal representatives have not been invited to have a seat on the Council.
Instead, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, appointed chair of the council by Obama, solicited tribal leaders’ input in a conference call held July 26, and this input helped guide the meeting, according to Interior officials.
The meeting was closed to the press and public. Pictures released by Interior showed many federal agency officials sitting around a square table looking at Jewell. Federal Indian employees, including Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs; Yvette Roubideaux, director of the Indian Health Service; and Jodi Gillette, Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs on the White House Domestic Policy Council, were there. Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, White House Domestic Policy Director Cecilia Muñoz, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, were also present, according to Interior.
“For context, today's meeting was a bit more organizational in nature—in order to get priorities in order,” said Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for Interior, when asked if tribal leaders were in attendance.
“At the top of the meeting Secretary Jewell provided a summary of matters raised by tribal leaders in a conference call held on Friday and through written comments,” Kershaw said. “That call was meant to inform some of the priorities that the Council should be focused on as it gathered today to discuss how the federal family can best coordinate efforts to address these issues.”
Kershaw said the input from tribal leaders included: “job creation and economic development in tribal communities, honoring treaties and the federal trust relationship, strengthening tribal justice systems, the need for coordination and education on Affordable Care Act enrollment for Native Americans, expanded education opportunities for Native American youth, protection of sacred sites and natural resource development, addressing the challenges tribes are facing due to the sequester and shortfall in contract support costs, and that tribal leaders want to see the federal agencies working together to build on the previous accomplishments of the Obama administration.”
Tribal leaders also informed the administration that they want to meet in face-to-face, organized sessions with federal agency officials that are more intimate than the yearly White House Tribal Nations Conferences, where it has been difficult to hear a variety of tribal voices given the overwhelming size and structure of the events.
Being relegated to input via conference call did not sit well with some tribal leaders.
“That’s not a real government-to-government relationship,” said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, who believes that tribal leaders and citizens have been set up via this new federal bureaucracy to be “on the outside looking in.”
Hall has advocated for the creation of a Native American White House council based on the model established under President Lyndon B. Johnson that would make tribes actual members of the council and give the council strong budget powers over Indian affairs.
Derek Bailey, former chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said he does not trust federal policy makers to be able to accurately represent tribal views without tribal leaders in the room.
"I am not confident, from my experiences, that all federal bureaucrats will accurately represent concerns of the tribes to the White House Council,” Bailey said. “For tribal relations to truly rise to the next level with the U.S. government, having opportunities for engagement and meaningful dialogue is imperative, and I believe welcomed by most tribal leaders.”
It’s disheartening to Bailey that the Council is not providing tribal leaders with the opportunity to be heard in person, because he believes Obama’s intent in creating the group is to develop stronger working relationships between federal officials, agencies and tribal nations.
“[A]ny time tribal leaders can be included and rightfully given the opportunity to increase understanding and awareness of issues affecting Indian country, [it can] only help all involved,” Bailey said.
Interior officials are aware of the desires of tribal leaders, but they have not said how they will account for them.
Jewell, meanwhile, has not publicly addressed the controversy, saying in a statement that she believes the “meeting underscores President Obama’s commitment to build effective partnerships with American Indian and Alaska Native communities.”