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Halbritter: White House Tribal Conference: Next step is getting state, local officials on board

The White House Tribal Conference in November was extraordinary and, in many ways, unprecedented. It was the largest gathering of tribal leaders from across the country in some 15 years.

The presence of President Obama, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, and other key officials from the Obama administration demonstrated the president’s genuine commitment and intent to treat tribal governments not only respectfully, but appropriately, on a true government-to-government basis. For the first time in years, and perhaps for the first time ever, the United States government appears ready and willing to give more than the usual lip service to the myriad issues facing Indian country.

This is as it should be. However, it is not all that needs to be done. Wonderful as it is to know that President Obama has directed his cabinet to come up with concrete plans for improving consultation and cooperation with tribal governments and implementing those improvements, we must all remember that many, if not all, Indian country issues revolve around sovereignty. Tribal governments have continually struggled with state and local authorities over questions of regulation, jurisdiction and taxation on Indian land.

Unfortunately, although sovereignty issues comprised a large part of the discussion at the White House conference, state and local officials weren’t there. Indeed, unless the federal government is willing to proactively involve state and local governments to respect tribes’ governmental status, many, if not most, of these issues will remain unresolved – another instance of all talk and no action.

Tribal governments still need – perhaps more than ever – the federal government’s protection from state designs on their land, businesses, and status as self-governing people. In 1934, Congress authorized federal trust land for tribal nations specifically to put a rein on overreaching state and local governments that were hostile to tribal rights.

Unfortunately, state and local governments are no less hostile to their neighboring tribal governments in the 21st century. In fact, some U.S. lawmakers, including Central New York’s own Rep. Michael Arcuri, want state and local governments to have “veto power” (or at least considerable influence) over trust land applications – a power that would undermine, if not eliminate, the very protections Congress sought to establish with trust land. If state and local governments could be trusted to respect tribal government rights, tribal land wouldn’t need federal protection. Giving those same officials the final say in the land into trust process is akin to hiring coyotes to guard the sheep.

State and local officials have always viewed their tribal nation neighbors as another cook in their kitchen and attempt to manipulate or intimidate Indian nations into ceding their rights as sovereign entities – many times over Indian revenues or to better position the state and local governments for litigation in their courts. These officials need to begin to understand and respect Indian nations’ standing as independent sovereign entities. Then the leaders of these various governments – state, local and tribal – could begin to work on finding long term creative solutions to issues of mutual concern, rather than spending their energies on fruitless political bickering and perpetual litigation.

Of course, we in Indian country cannot hope to convince state and local officials to accord our governments the respect they deserve because, as we know, “the people of the states where [Indian tribes] are found are often their deadliest enemies” (U.S. v. Kagama, 1886). We have been sending that message for all these many generations since the Europeans first came to our shores, without lasting effect or resolution. So maybe now we need a different messenger; who better than the federal government?

Hosting this historic conference in Washington, D.C., and manifesting a new commitment toward improved relations between tribes and the federal government is laudable. Nothing herein stated is intended to take away from the momentous significance of this event. But to make the necessary breakthroughs in resolving these old issues at their core, the federal government will have to use its legal and financial authority to assist state and local governments to respect and follow federal policy and leadership.

Ray Halbritter is the Oneida Indian Nation Representative, CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, and publisher of Indian Country Today.