Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Government: No More Talk, Action Required

A column by Joseph Valandra that calls for more action on the part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Government.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs website declares, “The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities as provided by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, court decisions and Federal statutes.” It goes on to detail the type of relationship fostered: “Indian Affairs provides services directly or through contracts, grants, or compacts to 566 Federally recognized tribes with a service population of about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives. While the role of Indian Affairs has changed significantly in the last three decades in response to a greater emphasis on Indian self-governance and self-determination, Tribes still look to Indian Affairs for a broad spectrum of services.”

Superficially, these are admirable statements of principals and implementation.

The BIA has a legal duty to fulfill the obligations of the President of the United States contained in “the Constitution of the United States, treaties, court decisions and Federal statutes.” Yet, when the BIA does not meet those obligations, it is more difficult for Tribes and Tribal leaders to effectively govern and provide for the welfare of their people. It puts at risk the very lives of people whom the federal laws and obligations were intended to protect.

There are concrete examples of the malfeasance—from the process used to approve a lease, a contract, take land in to trust, or recognize disenfranchised Tribal people, to identify the obvious. The paternal systems setup 188 years ago are alive and well at the BIA. The BIA embodies a system that has been managed over the years such that very little is expected with most resulting in disappointment.

Over the decades many good and dedicated people have made earnest efforts to change the system at the BIA. There is no doubt that President Obama and his appointees are making an effort at change. I support their efforts and applaud the perseverance it takes to affect this change.

Nonetheless, consider this: suppose that a Tribal government wants funds to provide jobs by making needed repairs and improvements to roads on Tribal Lands. This sounds straightforward enough and there seems to be funds available through the BIA’s many programs. Consider that the application process is tied to the budget process that is tied to the Tribal road allocation percentages that are dependent upon not just the BIA budget, but the overall transportation authorization bill and then must be competed for or shared with the states that have a stake in each and every dollar spent on roads within the boundary of the state, including Tribal lands.

Before a Tribe can even get to the point of stepping into this maze with their application, there is a consultation process that must take place at each point in the budget, allocation and programming policy march.

In order to complete the application, information is needed—information that would include statistics on jobs, roads, resources and other seemingly pertinent data. Because most Tribes function on the edge of poverty, there is only one source for the information, the BIA.

What if the BIA fails to provide the information Tribes depend on to govern and to justify funding for projects from the BIA? What are Tribes supposed to do?

The BIA announced last week that the 2010 Indian Population and Labor Force Report would not be published because of problems with the way the data for the report was gathered and other computational process issues. At a time when population and labor statistics play a major role in determining funding levels for vital programs, not having this report available is another serious failure of the BIA.

It is encouraging that Senator Jon Tester and Representative Don Young are upset and hopefully threatened investigations will be conducted. It is my suggestion regarding the obvious breach of The Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992 that any action Congress takes be broad enough to question the continuing viability of the BIA as currently and historically constituted.

The President should take transformative action impacting the way Indian policy is made and conducted. My recommendations are: (1) create a permanent Indian desk within OMB, giving that desk the broad view and ability to coordinate budgets and policy throughout the administration with the substantial clout of OMB, and (2) create a cabinet level agency with a Secretary of American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, giving that position the sole duty to pursue and fulfill the “unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribes and Alaska Native entities as provided by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, court decisions and Federal statutes.”

Consultations, tied to ineffective policies and bureaucratic inertia, are not enough because of the health, welfare, education, jobs and overall lives of Tribal members, many whom remain the poorest of the poor. The laws and obligations of the U.S. government must be a tool for progress for Tribes instead of a weapon used to deny fair treatment. The bottom line—no more talk. Tribes need action.

Joseph Valandra, Sicangu Lakota, is principal owner and president of VAdvisors, LLC, chairman and CEO of Tehan Woglake, Inc., and former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commissio.