President Barack Obama, following the lead of at least three presidents before him, established a White House Council on Native American Affairs on June 26.
The council is expected to oversee and coordinate the progress of federal agencies on tribal programs and consultation with tribes across the federal government.
“This policy is established as a means of promoting and sustaining prosperous and resilient tribal communities,” Obama said in his executive order announcing the Council. “Greater engagement and meaningful consultation with tribes is of paramount importance in developing any policies affecting tribal nations.” (Related story: Obama Establishes White House Council on Native American Affairs)
Jodi Gillette, Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs with the White House Domestic Policy Council, was direct in describing the need for the Council during a press conference call on June 27. “We need to do more, and we need to do it better,” she said. “Tribal leaders have told us we aren’t talking to each other enough.”
The Council will have no financial powers—those still belong to the Office of Management and Budget, which will continue to control how much money is spent on Native programs throughout the federal government.
Secretary of the Department of the Interior Sally Jewell, who is designated chair of the Council by the president, told attendees of a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in Nevada on June 27 that she would like to have the ability to curb cuts to Indian programs. During a speech there, she called sequestration “stupid,” and she noted that it has targeted tribal programs that are supposed to be protected under the federal-tribal trust relationship. She also wiped tears from her eyes when she said she realized the depth of her commitment to Indian issues over Memorial Day Weekend.
Despite this budgetary limitation, the president’s move is being applauded by tribal officials, including some involved with NCAI, who say that such a development is overdue under the Obama administration to better organize its response to Indian issues.
At the same time, some are concerned that this new Council is not currently scheduled to have tribal seats, although the administration has promised to consult with tribal leaders on issues the Council addresses.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, has been pressing 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 stronger powers (including OMB and budget powers).
Hall would especially like to see that model in place because OMB, earlier this year, decided to sequester Native programs, despite the federal trust responsibility to tribes. If the White House Native council had more budgetary power, this problem could have been averted.
Officials involved in past presidential Native American councils have also questioned why it took so long into Obama’s tenure to establish the Council since similar to ones that have proven to be useful under past administrations, including those of Presidents Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton.
Mike Anderson, an Indian affairs lawyers and past leader with the Clinton Native-focused council, said that he suggested to White House officials and to Indian affairs officials with the Department of the Interior during Obama’s first term that a similar council be created as the one he successfully worked on during the Clinton administration.
“[I’m] glad they are finally doing it,” Anderson said, adding that this group could have pushed for the federal agencies complete tribal consultation policies in compliance with the president’s request from 2009 that went unheeded by some for years after his request.
Anderson said it would have also been helpful for the Treasury Department, in particular, to hear perspectives on Indians during the president’s first term, since that Department has had some recent tax dealings with tribes that continue to perplex tribal leaders and citizens.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs in the House, is expressing concern that the creation of the council is symbolic, and he fears it does not focus enough on helping poverty-stricken tribes.
“This announced council is symbolic and a gesture rather than concrete action,” said Young spokesman Michael Anderson (no relation to Indian affairs lawyer Mike Anderson). “This is the phenomenon of government people creating a ‘blue ribbon panel’ to buy time so they can figure out how…to improve Indian reservation economies.
“Indian country’s unemployment situation, from all appearances, has not improved since Obama took office,” Anderson added. “If it has, we wouldn’t know it because the Secretary of the Interior has failed to produce annually required tribal labor reports. There are precious few job-producing non-government projects the Obama administration has approved in Indian country.”
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is much less critical of the Council and the president’s efforts. "This council recognizes the unique government-to-government relationship that exists between tribal governments and the federal government, and can help federal agencies work more effectively with tribes all across the nation,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I look forward to working with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on innovative ways to strengthen tribal self-governance and self-determination."
Some Obama administration officials say the creation of the Council is the next step in the evolution of the president’s strong commitment to Indian country.
“This announcement today is the next evolution of what is already a wonderful approach toward Indian tribes,” Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn said in a press conference call on June 27. “I am confident that this will make the administration even more effective at working with tribes in the future.”
Administration officials have not addressed why tribal officials were not invited to hold positions on the Council, as has happened with past presidential councils, nor why one wasn’t created sooner.