RAPID CITY, S.D. - Government-to-government relations peaked at an historic gathering here.
Twenty-eight American Indian nations came together to discuss emergency management preparedness. An agreement signed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency will impact future preparedness to combat the hardships from natural disasters.
The first-ever Memorandum of Understanding was signed by 21 of the 28 participating tribal officials. Other tribal leaders will consult with their tribal councils before signing the agreement.
This agreement will form a Tribal Emergency Management Coordinating Council with a representative of each tribe to work in partnership with each other and FEMA to create improved emergency management programs.
"This is an historic moment. We had open discussion on this memorandum, listened to each other and came to a consensus," Rick Weiland, Region VIII FEMA director said.
The memorandum is the first step in a long process that will continue to improve cooperation with tribes and FEMA to deal with disasters on reservations.
"The purpose of TEMCC is to improve communication in Region VIII. I am encouraged, because there are so many things we can do for people," Weiland said.
Tribes are at the mercy of the states in which they reside to receive federal emergency disaster aid, he explained. A governor must ask that a county in which the reservation is located be designated by the president as a disaster area. The state then distributes the funding.
The newly formed council will have a large agenda to work on over the next few years, but one of the items up for discussion will be an amendment to the Stafford Act that created FEMA. Nowhere in the act are tribes mentioned. However, as Weiland and other members of federal agencies pointed out at the conference, an executive order issued by President Clinton is the motivating force for agencies to work with tribes on a government-to-government basis.
But, when it comes to emergencies the state is in charge. "The goal is to change the Stafford Act. It now recognizes the state and not the tribes," said Gregg Bourland, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
He said his tribe was interested in changing the act, but "one tribe can't do it alone. Now we can have a dialogue amongst ourselves and in unified fashion develop language that we can take to Congress."
"With this (agreement) we now have a vehicle to fix the problem and this is the first step down that road."
Weiland said that if there is to be a change in the act, the tribes must have the ability and resources available to get started with emergency management teams.
The FEMA conference, the first of its kind in the nation, was conducted to provide training for emergency management personnel from the reservations and to encourage those reservations with no preparedness plan to move in that direction.
Hundreds of participants praised the efforts of FEMA for holding the conference and many said they had no idea what FEMA even stood for before a disaster struck their reservation. In addition to FEMA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Economic Development Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and state agencies from several of the six states in Region VIII attended the conference.
Bourland told a story about a 1997 snow storm that ravaged most of the western part of South Dakota, especially the Cheyenne River Reservation. "We had one snow drift that was 30 feet high and one-half mile long. We lost 30,000 head of cattle. We went to the BIA and they said they had no money. We asked the Department of Transportation for help and they said to go to the BIA. We asked the Department of Agriculture and they said go to the BIA. We had never heard of FEMA.
"When we called FEMA, they asked us how they could help. I was flabbergasted. They helped our people," Bourland said. "All the other agencies forgot what Clinton said, but FEMA listened."
The difficulty tribes experienced in the past is not knowing where to turn in case of disasters like tornadoes, floods or fires. With the tribal emergency council, tribes can work together, share resources and have a special partnership with FEMA and other federal agencies to provide technical assistance, training and financial aid.
"We used our own money to pay for disasters. We didn't know about FEMA," said Howard Richard, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe.
"With the (agreement) we have a vehicle to allow things to happen. I can go home now and say we have to regroup and develop a budget for planning."
Presently Region VIII is the only FEMA region that deploys a tribal cadre to coordinate emergency efforts with the tribes. Weiland said that cadre was sent all over the nation to various tribes with disasters "to save lives, the environment and the cultures. It has assisted in all 28 of the nations located within Region VIII, he said.
"They have made a difference."
He said FEMA distributed more than $22 million throughout Indian country in disaster aid over the years. "I've seen this money work and enable tribal members to rebuild homes, rebuild water ways and map flood plains. The memorandum of understanding will turn our attention to the future.
"Sovereignty is the basic rule in dealing with tribes. There is no debate. American Indians are not another minority group. FEMA is committed to its word as one government to another. Treaties are a trust responsibility and the federal government's words must be worthy," Weiland said.
Sue Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said FEMA could work with the NCAI to conduct training sessions and develop a handbook for emergency planning on reservations. She complained that failures in the past were caused by the lack of funds, not properly shared by the states with the tribes.
"Partnerships can be difficult, but FEMA can be helpful and a partnership with the tribes is positive. Our responsibility is to protect our homelands and people from disasters. If we are not prepared we will become overwhelmed. We must utilize all the resources from the states, federal government and the tribes," Masten said.
The purpose of the conference was to do just that. Each tribe designated delegates to attend training sessions that provided information relevant to maintaining and establishing emergency management departments within the tribes. It was emphasized over and over by panelists from various agencies that to have a department coordinate the efforts for the tribe is essential. The agencies need a contact within the tribe.
In the past years every tribe within the region, except for Fort Peck has been in need of emergency assistance from disasters. This year fires in Montana and Colorado affected the Ute Mountain, Southern Ute, Flathead Reservation, Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations.
Acting President Wilbur Between Lodges said the Oglala Lakota Nation learned a valuable lesson in the summer of 1999. One person died, hundreds were injured. It started out as a beautiful day, but by night it was a disaster."
The Pine Ridge Reservation had no emergency management office. But a FEMA cadre member, Oglala Delbert Brewer, was instrumental in the recovery process, Between Lodges said. "We put our faith in Brewer and he showed us."
An oft-repeated word at the conference was partnering. Agency officials and tribal leaders continually urged the tribes to form an emergency management office, appoint a manager and educate tribal members about emergency preparedness.
"If there is no infrastructure, there will be no emergency management. Find somebody at the state or federal level to mentor the program. Find somebody who knows how to play the game, provide training. Have a tribal person be a liaison with the state," said Fred Cowie, tribal liaison for the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services.
Before this conference little was done to form partnerships with tribes to provide emergency services. Earl Morris of the Office of Comprehensive Emergency Management, said "whatever we were doing to partner with the tribes was not enough. We never identified tribes as major partners or customers. We did not recognize tribes as partners.
"Counties were required to have local emergency plans that FEMA makes a commitment to fund. We have made progress with the Navajo Nation. We need to do more to partner with tribes to get on reservations to assist in emergencies. I hope more tribes will come onboard so we can fund them. We are committed to back up the tribes," Morris said.
As tribal leaders took microphones and podiums, they praised the work FEMA has done and especially praised the Memorandum of Understanding that starts a communication and dialogue with the federal agency to build emergency plans in case of devastating disasters.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe is making plans for potential disasters. Bourland said the tribe will install more sirens in various communities. The tribe owns the telephone company that will install fiber optics that, properly installed, will provide a backup to warn shut ins and others about impending disasters.
"The purpose is to save lives, second save property," he said.
Most of those at the conference said they hope they never need FEMA, which meant a disaster occurred. Weiland said FEMA can help before a disaster occurs with assistance in technical planning.
"As tribes we are unique and have special needs. This agreement gives us a better idea of how to plan. We are still in the learning mode and need to know the policies and procedures with FEMA. We need to be able to bypass the states when we are treated as counties on a local basis. That's the purpose of the agreement. We must fine tune the instrument. We still have a ways to go," Richard said.