Tribal leaders made abundantly clear at this year’s White House Tribal Nations Conference that they appreciate the good things the Obama administration has done for their tribal nations to date, but that doesn’t mean they are content—far from it. Indian Country Today Media Network was there to compile the following tribal desires expressed at the summit:
1) Get rid of sequestration of Indian treaty dollars. Money designated for tribes at the Departments of Interior, Health and Human Services and at other agencies across the government is supposed to be protected by the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes, but the Obama administration and Congress have done nothing to shield Indian funds during their current no-holds-barred austerity approach. Indian programs did not cause the national budget crisis, so Indian programs should not be sequestered, said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, at the conference. Funding for veterans and other programs have been protected, so Indian programs should be as well. “Treaties are not discretionary,” Payment said, to big tribal applause.
2) Get rid of the administration’s proposal to cap contract support cost reimbursements to tribes. It’s an affront to Indian health and welfare, multiple tribal leaders said, and it shows that the Office and Management and Budget, the Indian Health Service, and the Department of the Interior are more committed to the bottom line than to Indian citizens. Juana Majel Dixon, a longtime leader with the Pauma Band, told federal officials that 100 percent of contract support costs must be reimbursed to tribes, given treaty and trust obligations.
3) Don’t forget about paying the billions back owed to tribes for contract support costs they have already been forced to pay. The Supreme Court says these payments must be reimbursed. Plus, the administration has chosen to settle the Cobell and Keepseagle cases, which both had arguably less concrete numbers for what was owed to tribal citizens than contract support costs that have been dutifully recorded by tribes over the years. Jefferson Keel, Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs the day after the conference that many millions are due to tribes in this area. Indian Health Service puts the estimate for what is owed by its agency at $2 billion; Interior estimates over a billion.
4) Support Indian education. Tribal leaders talked a lot about this issue behind closed doors with administrations officials. They noted that when initially campaigning for president in 2008, President Obama himself promised to make Indian education a priority. Instead, attention has been haphazard, Native student progress has declined, and tribal colleges have received less support than they did under past presidential administrations. Indian youth and families are suffering because of it, said tribal leaders. Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, was key in raising this concern, addressing a White House panel about the need for the administration to actively protect tribal college budgets. He also noted the importance and value of tribal colleges and education in fighting poverty.
5) President Obama needs to fervently use his executive powers on Indian issues. Past presidents, including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, have pushed more sweeping tribal reforms with executive orders and special messages to Congress on Native issues than Obama. Executive actions can be done without Congress. “We need executive orders to carry out tribal needs,” Dixon said plainly.
6) Federal-tribal energy policy needs a lot of work. Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and Ben Shelly, president of the Navajo Nation, both made the case that Indian energy, both conventional and renewable, need much more concerted attention from this administration. “Our oil and gas initiatives are just as important as other oil,” Hall said. Shelly specifically asked the White House Council on Native American Affairs to support Indian energy policies being pushed by Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming).
7) IRS issues. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said the National Congress of American Indians asked the administration for a commitment to publish IRS General Welfare Doctrine guidelines to clarify tax-exemption for special activities serving cultural and economically disadvantaged tribal citizens, including support for legislation to preserve the status beyond this administration.
8) Get some Native Americans on the White House Council on Native American Affairs. The first meeting of the new council took place in late-July without any tribal leaders present, and that irked a lot of tribal leaders. Michael Finley, chairman of the Colville Tribes, recommended to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that the council hire an Indian-focused director to oversee its progress and to seat Native Americans on the council immediately so that paternalism concerns can be quickly overcome.
9) Strengthen consultation—for real this time. The Office of Management and Budget and the Indian Health Service have this year produced budget plans that negatively affected Indian country without any consultation, several tribal leaders lamented, and that’s despite a 2009 memorandum from President Obama requiring it. “I hope the president heard that his Department of Justice team took the contract support cost litigation to the Supreme Court without consultation with tribes, and once the Supreme Court ruled favorably to the tribal position his management team tries to sidestep upholding the intent of the Supreme Court decision,” said Edward Thomas, president of the Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes, who chose not to attend the conference due to concerns that it would become a photo op for the administration.
10) Obamacare is not a cure for Indian health woes. “Affordable coverage is not the same as pre-paid, treaty-based healthcare,” wrote Indian journalist Mark Trahant in his post-coverage of the conference. “American Indians and Alaska Natives are supposed to have a treaty right – a special right – to healthcare. One that's fully-funded. It's not ‘affordable healthcare just like everybody else's’”—which is what the president said in his speech at the event. The concern here from tribal leaders and Indians is that Obama might not understand the basic special status of Indians in this country today, which serves to undermine everything he does on tribal issues.
Honorable mentions: Tribal leaders made many other requests, including asking for a commitment from the administration to resolve the Carcieri and Patchak land-into-trust issues through clean legislation; a commitment to reaffirming the federal-tribal government-to-government relationship; a commitment to strengthening and improving Indian access to capital through tax-exempt bonds and loan guarantee programs; a commitment to addressing the infrastructure needs in tribal communities to enhance Indian economies; a commitment to resolving the conflict over the definition of “Indian” in the Affordable Care Act to eliminate conflicting interpretation and avoid dropping Indians from eligibility; and a commitment to enhancing tribal law enforcement capacity to implement the newish Tribal Law and Order and Violence Against Women Acts that enhance tribal enforcement authority for public safety. “Authority without resource is an empty commitment,” Allen noted on this last point.