A Conversation with Pete Rouse

WASHINGTON—In a first for the Obama White House, the president’s chief of staff sat down for an interview with a Native American publication.

Pete Rouse, who took over the position from a retiring Rahm Emanuel in October, is an all-around political power player who also happens to know quite a bit about Indian policy issues, having served as chief of staff to former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

During his time in service to Daschle, Rouse became known as the “101st senator,” and, upon Daschle’s exit from Congress, he became chief of staff to Obama when he was a freshman senator from Illinois.

In a Dec. 13 interview with Indian Country Today, Rouse shared a bit of his background, as well as thoughts on future Indian policy and outreach from the administration.

Indian Country Today: Many folks in Indian country know you worked for former Sen. Daschle. Did that experience help inform you on Indian issues?
Pete Rouse: It certainly did and, actually, my first job. … I’ve been working in government, primarily on the Hill, for 39 years, and my first job was in 1971 with Jim Abourezk, who was a congressman from South Dakota. That was my first exposure to Native American issues and, actually, Tom Daschle and I were staffers together for two years with Jim Abourezk in the Senate, when he was a senator. Then, for 19 years, I was chief of staff for Tom in the House and Senate. So, that’s how I became espoused of Indian issues—and, hopefully, somewhat knowledgeable.

ICT: When you encounter Indian policy issues, do they come naturally for you, or do you need a lot of outside briefing—not that there’s anything wrong with that.
PR: Well, I need a lot of outside briefing on everything. [Laughs] I am familiar with these issues going way back to Wounded Knee in South Dakota in the early ’70s. Elouise Cobell, I’ve known since the ’80s when she was trying to reform the management of Indian trust. And, of course, in South Dakota, where you have Pine Ridge and Rosebud and Standing Rock—and a lot of the issues of unemployment, need for economic development, education, health care. … those were always prominent on Tom Daschle’s agenda, so I’ve been talking to tribal leaders and Native Americans for years.

ICT: Many Native Americans were excited this year by the passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, but there is worry that it could be repealed as part of the greater health reform package in the next Congress when the GOP takes over the House. Would the White House consider sending a strong signal that Title X, the IHCIA, is off limits?
PR: I think the president certainly would. The permanent authorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was a big priority. The president, he learned about this when he was in the Senate after Sen. Dorgan and others lobbied him heavily about it and educated him on this. … Indian health care, we’ve got a long, long way to go on it. … Talk about broken promises. This is one of the clearest indicators of that. The president is totally committed to this. This is not an issue that he would compromise on, or back off on.

ICT: Would the White House consider creating a working group of tribal leaders who could meet quarterly with the president, yourself, and others in the administration to map out a unified national tribal economic development strategy?
PR: That’s actually an interesting idea. And it would be consistent with what the president has been trying to do through his campaign. As you know, back during the campaign, his primary message, at least as far as Native American issues, was the need for improved government-to-government communication with tribal nations and better coordination. And we had the tribal consultation resolution last year, which [the departments are working on.] We had a promise to have a senior policy advisor in the White House, which Kim Teehee has done a great job at. Jodi Gillette is in the Office of Public Engagement. I think that, while they talk to tribal leaders on a regular basis, and travel around Indian country, this is something that maybe we should consider formalizing more. I think the issue there is, how do you get that right—that you’re talking to the right people. Do the right people feel included? I think what we’ve done so far, for the first two years, is try to broaden that net to have as much communication as possible with as many Native American leaders as possible. Maybe after two years, and after this tribal conference, it would make sense to see if we can formalize that more.

ICT: A concern among some tribal leaders [about the tribal nations conferences] is that gathering 565 tribal leaders is inclusive, but there’s not much opportunity to get into depth on many issues.
PR: That’s a good point. … I think what happened at last year’s tribal nations conference is, if I recall. …you have so many people speak, and they make their point, and that takes time, so you don’t really get into candid dialogue. So, hopefully that can happen in the breakout sessions [this year] and when Kim and Jodi and others go out on the road. But I think this is something that we ought to talk about after we come out of this meeting: Is there a way to make that a little more formalized and smaller? The question is. … how do you select those people [for a working group]?

ICT: Would the president consider doing a tour of the 565 federally recognized nations to do outreach directly to tribal citizens in the next two years?
PR: You know, I think he would. He did visit Indian country during the campaign, and over the years, we’ve established a lot of communication and coordination. I think that as we go forward over the next two years, I know he’d like to. With time constraints, we’ll have to see. But this has been discussed, and hopefully it will be on the agenda as we plot out the next two years.

ICT: The president signed the Native American Apology Resolution last December as part of an appropriations bill, but he never made a formal apology regarding historic federal injustices out loud. Some said the apology should be said out loud to hold meaning and weight. Would the president consider making such an apology?
PR: I think, first, that the president supported the resolution on its own, and it was attached to that Senate bill and signed into law in that vehicle. I think he’s spoken to the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured over the years. Whether he would speak to this directly, we’ll have to see. But I know that he believes that is what happened.

ICT: On the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, will the U.S. change its opposition to it?
PR: I am not. … totally familiar with that. I do know that it’s under review in the administration, but, I just, at this point don’t know when that review is going to end. I will gladly get back to you on that to let you know where we are.

The White House offered the following information on the declaration’s progress in a later e-mail: “The United States government is currently reviewing its position on the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. U.S. agencies have consulted extensively with tribal leaders during three rounds of consultations, one in Rapid City, S.D., and two in Washington, D.C. In addition, the agencies have conducted outreach to indigenous organizations and other interested individuals. We continue to review this very important issue.”

President Barack Obama announced Dec. 16 that the U.S. is lending its support to U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.