Indian Country’s Arranged Marriage With President Trump: Can It Be Saved?

These are some of the ways Indian country can reframe reality, save its marriage with President Trump, and make Indian country great again.

Today Native American tribal governments find themselves, after what feels like a shotgun wedding, in an arranged marriage with President Trump. Each Indian tribe has a government-to-government relationship with the United States based in treaties and other laws. These nation-to-nation relationships are not unlike serial, arranged marriages. Same institution, different president. Same game, different player. Same bed, different body.

Arranged marriages can be very successful and satisfying. Reportedly just one out of 100 marriages in south-Asia India, arranged by families and friends, end in divorce while in America, 50 out of 100 self-selected marriages end in divorce. Dr. Utpal Dholakia recently wrote in Psychology Today that one of the three main reasons India-Indian arranged marriages “work” is that arranged partners start their marriage with lower expectations. So can President Trump exceed Indian country’s low expectations for their marriage that was arranged for them by America’s voters?


My rather audacious goal here is to use a little Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to show how Indian country might save its arranged marriage to President Trump. Caveat emptor: I’m a legal counselor not a marriage counselor. Counseling experts say CBT is a short-term, goal oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. The goal of CBT is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s challenges. When it works, it alters people’s attitudes, behavior, and how they relate by focusing on the thoughts, images, beliefs and attitudes they hold.

Similarly, if Indian country’s arranged marriage to President Trump is going to work for Indian country, Indian country likely will have to reframe its thinking, opening up to alternative approaches and patterns that can give rise to new possibilities.

One way to begin our marriage therapy is to look at why America’s voters choose Mr. Trump. Most observers say the 2016 campaign was about change:

  • Change the team – Donald (and to some extent Bernie) wore out and beat up Hillary and Jeb on this one.
  • Change the game – actively address the causes of working families in “fly-over” America who have been long-ignored by the coastal elites.
  • Return jobs to American communities from other countries.
  • Sharply curtail immigration.
  • Reject and renegotiate world trade deals.
  • Pull back from costly policing obligations around the globe.
  • Lift the burden of regulations and laws that dampen the economy.
  • Lower taxes on workers (and their corporate employers).

So the “change” candidate won. This is not without precedent. Bill Clinton took office to change policy so that it “put people first.” George W. Bush entered to change education policy as a “compassionate conservative.” Barack Obama ran on hope and “yes we can” change the world. Candidate Trump’s identity as a “change” agent was shaped largely by his self-description that everything he has done before has been a superlative success and so he promises success at making America great again.

Given the lessons of history, however, “great again” may not end up being President Trump’s legacy since presidencies tend to end on a different chord from the one they struck when they began. Bill Clinton stumbled into House impeachment. George W. Bush was defined by a surprise war. And Barack Obama was sacked a lot like a quarterback without protection.

So what events and issues will redefine Donald Trump’s presidency from his entrance theme of “great again”? What events and issues will describe the Trump Administration four or eight years from now? This is a daunting and perhaps futile question at this early stage. But for Indian country, it is in the self-interest of Indian tribes to figure this out in order to make its arranged marriage with President Trump work as long as possible.

Indian country’s marriage to this President began without even a blind date. What little Indian country did know about Mr. Trump in the 1990s was not very attractive because of his rough play when his casinos were competing with several tribal government gaming enterprises. Today, President Trump and his supporters say that as President he has changed his ways with Indian tribes from when he was their competitor. Like in any marriage, the only chance of making it work is for Indian country to take at face value his statements of good intention made in the present tense.

So what would it look like to reframe Indian country’s low expectations of the Trump Administration?

Candidate Trump ran as the self-assumed advocate to empower non-elite Americans, those ignored by urban, formally-educated, upper class America and their Democratic and Republican power establishments. Taking him at his word, most Native Americans would be among the disenfranchised Americans for whom he sought to speak. Who more than Native American Indians have been by-passed when government largess is distributed? Who more than Indian country is usually just an afterthought except, of course, when Indian territory has furs and pelts, land and forests, water, gold, uranium, oil, cute kids, and whatever else the coastal people in power at the time crave?

Could Indian country work with its new nation-to-nation partner to make Indian country great again? To allow more tribal autonomy (i.e., restoring more tribal sovereignty over territory and people)? More tribal self-governance? Greater Indian self-determination?

I would argue that there are four basic keys to reframing Indian country’s relationship into a successful marriage.

First, Indian country would be well-advised to discipline itself so that everything it does emphasizes the governmental identity of Indian tribes. To the extent an Indian tribe looks like a government, sounds like a government, thinks like a government, acts like a government, and reacts like a government, that tribe bolsters its inherent sovereignty. To the extent it does not, it erodes and undermines its inherent sovereignty. More than anything, sovereignty is what distinguishes Indian tribes and makes them great governments.

Second, Indian country best keep very close and friendly relations with its Republican and Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. It is in the interest of Indian country to treat these allies like they are beloved siblings who are regularly visited, worked with, and perhaps even called in for an occasional intervention if the marriage with President Trump is on the rocks. At the same time, Indian country best resist being used for partisan purposes by any Hill Democrat or Republican and instead use Democrats and Republicans for Indian country purposes.

Third, it is in Indian country’s interest to compare its priority list with the Trump Administration’s priority list, and focus, laser-like, on the priorities that match up based on territorial sovereignty:

  • Jobs in fly-over America (most of Indian country) mainly sparked by tribal government gaming and related enterprises;
  • Tribal oil and gas production on tribal lands under tribal ownership and control out of the reach of all outsiders, including paternalistic-we-know-what’s-best-for-you federal trustees, environmentalists, neighbors, and corporate conglomerates;
  • Domestic manufacturing jobs in Indian country through tax reform that locates tax credits and exemptions for Promise Zones and Empowerment Zones in Indian country; and
  • A huge construction program to bring better infrastructure and essential services to remote areas of Indian country.

Fourth, since President Trump is a master Twitter debater, Indian country best boil down what it wants into some pithy, succinct, evocative language that invites its government-to-government partner to better understand Indian country. This would suggest that Indian country funnel everything it wants through the filter of parity:

  • Parity in tax reform – treat tribes like all other governments are treated.
  • Parity in health care – protect and expand the law and funding until the health care provided Native Americans under treaty obligations at least is in parity with the health care the United States provides to federal prison inmates.
  • Parity in labor management – treat tribes like all other governmental employers are treated by honoring their own laws governing their own workforce.
  • Parity in infrastructure construction – treat tribes like all other governments are treated in funding and control, so that Native Americans can access essential services in their homelands and are no longer forced to emigrate in order to get equal opportunity to basic services.

These are some of the ways Indian country can reframe reality, save its marriage with President Trump, and fulfill the promise of making Indian country great again.

Philip Baker-Shenk is a partner in the Native American Law Group at Holland & Knight LLP. He provides legal and policy representation to dozens of Native American Indian tribal governments as well as tribal organizations and companies doing business with Indian tribes. He previously served as GOP General Counsel to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.