Baker-Shenk: Elevating Indian Policy in the Obama Administration

Since 1976, I have been privileged to work on behalf of Indian tribes in Washington D.C. From that perspective, I suggest these strategies, which involve persuasion, narrative, connection and personnel, for elevating Indian policy in the Obama administration.

Each of these ideas is overshadowed by what I believe is the single biggest threat to federal Indian policy as we know it – a tsunami of soaring deficits, swelling national debt and powerful Baby Boomer demands for entitlement spending that likely will impose sharp cutbacks in federal funding for Indian programs in the coming years.

But first things first. To prepare for the coming battles, tribes best master the art of persuasion. They have to make their story compelling to non-Indians. Tribes must convince the Obama administration that it can further its goals by furthering their goals.

Tribes will have to romance the next Secretary of the Interior. To get in the secretary’s mind and heart, early and often. They need a General Petreaus-style counter-insurgency, a surge-like strategy that gets in close and earns respect by matching the secretary’s goals with tribal goals.

Tribal leaders who attended Secretary Gale Norton’s marathon consultation sessions on trust reform a few years ago will remember how her eyes sparkled with promise at first, then dimmed into what looked like an overwhelmed slump. Her interest burned out and never came back. Would a better secretary have responded differently? Perhaps. But is it possible that some tribal leaders overdid it? That they used sticks rather than carrots? There certainly is a time for both. The art and science of psychology and persuasion is in knowing which to use when.

Tribes must convince the Obama administration that it can further its goals by furthering their goals.

When making first impressions on the Obama administration, tribes best ask whether they are being presented as a “headache” or as an “opportunity” for do-able solutions. Let’s tell the good news about how tribes are expanding employment for members and neighbors, how tribes are effectively caring for their people, how tribes are reviving diverse cultures, lifeways and languages, and how tribes are rebounding from tragedy with a vibrancy that is inspiring.

Tribes would do well to refine their narrative and then repeat it over and over again like a good campaign message. Tribes must do this to be persuasive. Presidential contenders do this to win votes. Trial lawyers do this to swing juries.

An effective tribal narrative must plainly explain tribal sovereignty, perhaps as the right to control what happens with tribal land and the people thereon. It must explain the federal trust responsibility, perhaps as the solemn national duty to honor the letter and spirit of treaties and other agreements made in exchange for peace, land and resources. This includes a permanent federal obligation to provide health, education and general welfare services and support for tribal government operations. It includes federal protection of tribal powers and resources against predatory state, local and private sector interests.

An effective tribal narrative must plainly show how tribes are the most effective entities to deliver vital government services to, and make decisions for, Indians.

It must connect tribal objectives with national objectives held in common with the rest of America. Tribes share security interests – so there needs to be more talk about the Warrior tradition, and the many men and women warriors that tribes have sent off to defend American freedom.

Tribes would do well to refine their narrative and then repeat it over and over again like a good campaign message.

Tribes share energy independence and sustainability interests – some of the greatest American energy reserves are on Indian lands. What federal and state government obstacles do tribes believe should be removed so they can create a win-win for themselves and America?

To be effective, the tribal effort must point out the shared goals of efficient expenditures of federal dollars. Tribes benefit from efficiency – the most effective expenditure of federal tax dollars on services for Indians is done by tribes for tribes.

Tribes best show that what is good for them is good for their neighbors and for America. Jobs in Indian country produce revenue and taxes that benefit all governments – tribal, local, state and federal.

And tribes would do well to demand tribal parity on service delivery. Tribes best forge alliances with state and local governments where possible, and aggressively compete with them where agreement is not possible.

Appointments can make or break policy. Cabinet and sub-cabinet nominations can determine a president’s success or failure. President Obama should be pressured to appoint tribal leaders to federal positions because they possess the most knowledge, best experience, proper attitude and unique aptitude necessary to implement a successful federal Indian policy.

It is not too early to begin pushing your highest expectations on the Obama presidency.

It’s a little late to create an Indian slate, but not too late. Dream big. I can think of no reason to limit your focus to just filling the assistant secretary – Indian affairs and the IHS director positions.

Why not promote two or three Indian candidates for each of the remaining unfilled Cabinet slots like the Secretary of Commerce? And certainly the deputy and under secretary positions that actually run departments and the OMB and White House slots that shape policy.

Why not the top jobs? If non-Indians have always been expected to be able to master the Indian parts of those jobs, why shouldn’t Indians be expected to master the non-Indian parts of those jobs?

If tribes don’t demand this, who will?

Likewise, tribes need to promote lists of Indian attorneys who President Obama should appoint as judges to the federal courts, and who should be appointed as U.S. Attorneys. This is not an audacious demand – Hopi member Diane Humetewa is the U.S. Attorney in Arizona, today, and there are dozens of Indian lawyers like her who are likewise qualified to serve.

One word of caution: this promotion of Indian appointments must be done with strategic discipline. Candidates must be groomed. Support must be cultivated. And it will require a collective effort that mainly involves the promotion of reluctant draftees. Self-promotion tends to kill a candidacy. Others must do it.

There are many qualified Indian leaders. Talk them up. Media buzz must be created. It is not too early to begin pushing your highest expectations on the Obama presidency.

President Obama has issued an excellent Indian statement. He counts tribal leaders and advisers among his supporters. I’ve just identified some opportunities and sketched a strategy to exploit them. But I am compelled to conclude with a warning about a clear and present danger, a tidal wave that could swamp the boat.

The odds are stacked against Indian Country because a federal debt tsunami threatens to wipe out Indian funding.

Funding for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the $10 trillion national debt are likely to consume all federal revenues over the next two decades. Deficit spending by the federal government destroys credit markets and hikes interest rates, cutting consumer spending and business investment. It hikes the competition faced by tribes chasing fewer and fewer federal dollars. Indian tribes will find themselves in the mother of all battles to preserve federal Indian spending during Obama’s term in office.

All of this will not be enough to preserve Indian funding. That will require a shared unity of purpose between tribes with enterprise revenues and those which rely substantially on federal funds. Both share a common identity and a common fate. Without tribal sovereignty protected by the federal trust responsibility, both groups perish. And without money, it is difficult to exercise tribal sovereignty. If this is true, we need a sophisticated, strategic initiative to protect and preserve federal Indian funding.

Philip Baker-Shenk is a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm in Washington, D.C.