What do American Indians face in the Trump era? President Donald Trump’s policies will be threatening to tribal rights, tribal sovereignty, cultural identity, and to many of the legal and legislative wins of the past. Already Trump has signed two oil pipeline projects into construction after considerable opposition from Indian nations.
By executive order, Trump has temporarily stopped hiring in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The hiring freeze will be lifted only after the Secretary of the Interior and the Office of Management and Budget devise a plan to significantly reduce staff. If the President gets his way, there will be significant reductions in hiring in the BIA. The Indian Health service got a reprieve on the temporary hiring freeze because failing to make hires might endanger patients. The President’s proposed budget threatens to significantly cut funding for the Department of the Interior. If his budget proposals are passed into law, most likely the BIA will suffer disproportionate budget cuts and employee reductions within the Interior department.
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The President’s rationale for the budget and employment cuts is that such actions will free funds for investment in economic infrastructure. Investing in building the economy promises to provide additional market based employment, and provide more jobs and profits in the national economy. Trump’s promise to voters and to American Indians was that he was going to take steps to increase employment, profits, and general economic income.
American Indian policy has for a long time offered American Indians an invitation to join in the American economy. Most jobs and economic production in the United States occurs in urban areas. There are many persons of Indian descent currently living and working in urban areas. Many urban Indians continue to have strong Indian identities and maintain contact with their tribal communities. Many Indians would like to return to their home reservations if there were enough employment. Reservations, however, are like most rural communities in the United States, and cannot economically support rising populations. Hence many people seek education and skills that lead to employment in the urban U.S. economy. Trump’s policies will accentuate the drift toward urban economy and leave the countryside with mainly agricultural and extractive raw materials markets that provide limited economic opportunities.
Cutting support and funds to the BIA will provide fewer resources and programs to rural tribal governments and communities. Similar budget and employment cuts within the entire federal system will reduce the housing, elder, community, legal and other resources that tribal communities have been working with since the mid-1960s. The dismantling of the federal budget and staff directly affects the programs and government benefits that serve the most economically marginalized and culturally different communities in the nation. While relative economic support for Indian communities since the 1960s generally declined owing to inflation and budget cuts, Trump’s plans provide an immediate and deeper cut than the usual trends.
With Trump’s strong emphasis on individual and nuclear family economic opportunity, there is less attention for tribal government, tribal sovereignty, tribal land, and tribally-based economic development. Within the Trump vision, Indian communities are reduced to populations of potential workers and not recognized as tribal communities with rights to self-government, land, and collective economic resources and entrepreneurship. Indians rejected termination policy in the ‘50s, but haven’t outright rejected United States citizenship and economic participation. Tribal communities just want the continuation of tribal sovereignty, identity, and economy.
The highly successful gaming businesses among American Indian tribes are organized and directed mostly by tribal governments and communities. Once again, United States Indian policies, now through Trump, offer American Indians opportunities for economic participation, but promise much less support and recognition for tribal governments and tribal pathways to market economy.