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After Slow Start, Tribal-Federal Consultation Progresses at FEMA

FEMA makes progress on tribal-federal consultation despite slow start following President Barack Obama’s direction from November 5, 2009.

Just a few months into his first term, President Barack Obama requested that all federal agencies develop “meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials.” On November 5, 2009, he directed each of his agency heads to submit to the director of the Office of Management and Budget their detailed consultation plans within 90 days.

Some agencies, like the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services – long accustomed to working with tribes – were quick to follow suit; they released comprehensive plans that have been applauded by tribal leaders (yet even these well-intentioned plans have sometimes been usurped, as happened during the recent federal sequestration of tribal funding). Other agencies, as previously reported by Indian Country Today Media Network, lagged behind—following a path of lacking federal-tribal consultation that has occurred under many presidents before Obama.

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Still others submitted late initial consultation plans that tribal leaders and citizens didn’t view as being all that meaningful, but rather as rudimentary words that would require vast expansion if the agencies truly intended to strengthen tribal-federal relations beyond a perfunctory lip-service level.

Such was the case with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) it encompasses. In 2009, DHS issued a draft of its tribal consultation policy, later followed by a final version in 2010. The policy said things that sounded good to tribes, but as it pertained to federal-tribal relations on disaster-related aid, citizenship issues, and other areas, the policy was sorely lacking. At that time, the only way tribes could receive federal assistance when faced with flood, fires, or other devastation was to ask their respective states to ask the federal government for help. It wasn’t a model of federal respect for tribal sovereignty, and it wasn’t helping tribes receive assistance quickly enough, tribal leaders said.

As Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator, heard and listened to increasing tribal concerns, he strongly supported legislation that would allow tribes to directly work with and petition the president directly for disaster-related funds and assistance when needed. To great fanfare in Indian country, the legislation passed Congress in early 2013, and since then a handful have tribes have been able to take advantage.

RELATED: Interview: FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate Applauds US House Passage of Tribal Bill

Tribal leaders have widely applauded this improved relationship with FEMA and Fugate’s role in supporting it. Six tribes to date have already been able to interact directly with the agency to receive federal assistance in seven instances without interference from their respective states. Tribes that still wish to work through their states have continued to be able to do so, but the option is now there for them to take more responsibility if they can and want to in the future.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, deputy associate administrator for response and recovery at FEMA, says that passage of the legislation and its implantation was an impetus for FEMA to create a better tribal consultation policy.

The agency still follows the 2010 DHS tribal consultation policy, but FEMA has also developed its own policy specific to tribal relations, released in late-August, in order to provide further guidance to FEMA employees on how to consult with tribes. FEMA’s policy is consistent with the DHS policy, agency officials say, and it is perhaps a model for other agencies that have in the past lacked solid relationships with tribes.

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“We didn’t really have a FEMA-specific tribal consultation policy [before now],” Zimmerman says. “We had different documents that talked about tribal consultation, but we really focused on it this time for this one.”

Milo Booth, who was hired as a national tribal affairs advisor for FEMA in May, says the new consultation policy lays out a blueprint for not only the how and when to engage with tribes, but also the who on both the agency and tribal ends.

“We have clearly identified roles, specifically with the tribal consultation coordinator [and their role in the FEMA hierarchy],” Booth says. “It also mentions that we will work to the fullest extent possible with tribal stakeholders to take into consideration their preference of consultation method. We like the diversity it provides.”

Booth, a citizen of the Metlakatla Indian Community, adds that it is a great challenge to consult with all 566 federally-recognized tribes on FEMA issues, so he has made it a priority to connect with the National Congress of American Indians, the United South and Eastern Tribes, and other national tribal organizations. Regular conference calls have become the norm, he says, to help both tribal and federal officials know and understand each other’s needs.

“Although we can’t sit here and understand what all 566 tribes are thinking at any moment, we can at least go to the leadership in the tribal, non-governmental organizations who handle emergency management to kind of keep our finger on the pulse there,” Booth says.

Booth also says that his position is a beefed-up version of a previous tribally-focused position that existed at the agency. His is a full-time position, and there are now two full-time employees in the tribal affairs branch of FEMA. “We feel up to the challenge for what the consultation policy allows us to do,” he says. “We’re pretty excited about it.”

With the consultation policy in place, FEMA officials are turning to strengthening the tribal declaration process—the criteria for how a tribe can get direct help in the case of a disaster. Currently, there is a $1 million threshold of damage in order to receive matching assistance from the federal government, but some tribes have asked FEMA to reconsider that number. How to define damage on struggling reservations with crumbling infrastructures is another question being considered, as is how to implement cost-share issues. To date, the agency has received over 800 comments from tribes expressing their interests on reforming the current criteria and definitions in ways that better meet tribal needs.

“The trend that we were seeing in those comments so far is that many tribes don’t even have a million dollars worth of infrastructure,” Zimmerman says. “And we are restricted by federal law what we can reimburse for.”

So can one policy address the diverse needs of all tribes?

“That’s something that we have to take into consideration,” Zimmerman says. “Some have talked about a tiered criteria. The baseline is that tribes have got to be able to handle and accept the money from the federal government, and they need to have a mitigation plan in place.”