It was December 2012, and President Barack Obama had just been re-elected with widespread support from Indian country. Even while celebrating his victory, however, tribal leaders and advocates knew he could quickly become a lame-duck president, given the intense partisan politics of late in D.C.
That’s why many Indian advocates, including some in the federal government, pushed the administration for quick action on a clean legislative fix to the controversial U.S. Supreme Court Carcieri decision of 2009 that limited the U.S. Department of the Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for tribes that were federally recognized after 1934. If a clean fix didn’t happen in late 2012 or in early 2013, the consensus was that it wasn’t likely to happen for years.
Many tribal leaders wanted Obama to put intense pressure on Democratic senators, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), to drop their bids to use a Carcieri fix to limit Indian gaming, as these tribal leaders maintain that the two issues are separate—land-into-trust is not just about gaming, after all.
At the same time, some tribal lobbyists thought the best strategy was to bargain with Congress in ways that would protect some of the lobbyists’ Indian clients from competition from other tribes. In a flurry of negotiations with Congress in late-2012, those lobbyists began to add new ideas to the table. What if off-reservation gaming were limited just in some areas, like California, asked one tribal lobbyist—could that gain favor with the rest of Indian country? Ietan Consulting, founded by Larry Rosenthal, former legislative director for U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), was one of the lead lobbying firms pushing for a Carcieri compromise. The firm represents California tribal interests that would benefit from a narrowing of Indian gaming.
Those lobbyists also floated their ideas to the administration and Congress, and they quickly gained favor. Some Congress members used this lack of unity to their advantage, with Feinstein telling Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) that there wasn’t consensus from Indian leaders on this issue, so he should table it. He ultimately did, over objections from retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), then-chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs who had made a clean Carcieri fix a top priority that was supposed to be part of his legacy.
Sources say Rosemary Morillo, chairwoman of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, couldn’t believe what had happened. Apparently, she felt tribal lobbyists with their own interests had been able to have more of an influence with the federal government than the elected tribal leaders of sovereign nations. And it had hurt Indian country’s economic and sovereign interests.
Sources have said that after the deal was dead, Morillo expressed her exasperation toward tribal lobbyists on a conference call set up by national Indian organizations with tribal advocates from around the country to assess the Carcieri situation. She said they should be ashamed of themselves for their role in the failed Carcieri fix dealings. Their work had caused Indian country to lose its unity on an issue that should be a no-brainer, she said, since all tribes should be treated equally on land-into-trust matters.
In the end, nothing happened in Congress in 2012 or in 2013 on a Carcieri fix. And tribal advocates fear nothing is likely to happen anytime soon, despite a supportive president and administration.
If anything useful is to be taken away from this, beyond the widespread desire for a clean Carcieri fix, Morillo says that the Obama administration and Congress must understand that tribal lobbyists are not elected tribal leaders, and that their priorities are often different from those of elected tribal leaders.
While she did not discuss the details of the phone conversation with ICTMN stating only, "we are so close to it and that there were various different interests represented," she did note that several attendees at the 2013 White House Tribal Nations Conference held in D.C. on November 13 were not elected tribal leaders. Some, she notes, were lobbyists, and that alarms her.
“Only elected officials of their tribal governments should be invited,” Morillo says. "Tribal leaders have an interest in their own lands and the people they govern."
Morillo, newly elected Pacific-area vice president with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), also calls out the administration for choosing Chris McNeil, president and CEO of the Sealaska Alaska Native Corporation, to attend what was billed as a one-on-one tribal leaders’ meeting with the president on November 12. Morillo, who attended the meeting, says she was surprised to see McNeil at the table.
“There are many Alaska Native leaders with pressing needs who should have been in that room,” she says. “Sealaska is a major corporation—it doesn’t need the help that other communities do.” McNeil has not returned requests for comment on how he was selected.
Michael Finley, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and newly elected first vice-president of NCAI, is another who doesn’t understand. He also saw several lobbyists at the conference, which he thought was supposed to be focused on government-to-government relations, not lobbying.
“There is a difference between government-to-government relationships and lobbying relationships,” Finley says. “I hope the administration understands that—otherwise they don’t really understand us at all.”
The White House confirms that several attendees were not elected tribal leaders, including military code talkers and veterans. Shin Inouye, spokesman for the White House, says the administration deferred to each federally recognized tribe that was invited to determine who their representative would be at the conference.
The White House would not release a list of lobbyists at the event, nor a full list of attendees, so it is hard to say precisely how many lobbyists were there. Tribal leaders interviewed for this article say there were at least a dozen.
Holly Cook Macarro, one of the lobbyist attendees at the conference, says her tribe, the Red Lake Indian Reservation, chose her to be a representative of the tribe at the event. Cook Macarro is a partner with Ietan Consulting.
Morillo thinks that if important Indian policy is going to pass Congress anytime soon, tribal leaders need to be present at such meetings.
“I think tribes need to take the time to send elected tribal leaders,” she says. “We’re making history here—when that invitation is extended, that’s a gesture that opens up a lot of doors. We need to make sure the doors that are opened help the tribal citizens, not the lobbyists.”