ICTMN recently interviewed U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), co-chair of the House Native American Caucus. She expressed grave concern that President-elect Donald Trump could repeal the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, but admitted that his “blank-slate” status on Indian issues leaves room to hope that he could be an economic champion for tribes.
How do you expect Indian country to fare under President Trump?
Well, we didn’t hear much from President-elect Trump on any kind of comprehensive policy or position on Indian country. So, people are concerned based on some of the comments that he has made about some of the other minority groups…. One big issue: When people talk about blindly repealing the Affordable Care Act (which the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is a part of that), the president-elect wants to do it during his first 100 days in office—we cannot and we should not [let that happen.] Indian country should start reminding congressional leaders as well as president-elect Trump that the IHCIA should not be repealed.
Why do you think we didn’t hear much from the Trump campaign on Indian issues during the election season?
I think people don’t talk about Indian country because they either don’t know Indian country, or they don’t understand it. I have not spoken to President-elect Trump, so I don’t know where he falls within those categories. But it is going to be up to tribal leaders and members of Congress to really make sure that his Cabinet and budget recognize and build on the work that President Obama and we in Congress have done in a nonpartisan fashion. Our work is in no way complete…. We need to make sure that President-elect Trump starts realizing the importance of his appointments. The appointments that he makes to [the Department of the] Interior are not just about his stated agenda of “drilling more” and extracting more natural resources — there is a much broader focus of Interior in Indian health, Indian education and respecting and promoting Indian country to be able to live up to its full potential. I certainly hope that President-elect Trump puts together a really good team in the Department of the Interior.
(Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, news reports have indicated that President-elect Trump will nominate U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) to serve as Secretary of the Interior.)
How do you go about educating your colleagues in Congress on Native American matters?
[U.S. Rep.] Tom Cole (R-Okla.) and I, as co-chairs of the Native American Caucus, will be reaching out to work with the National Congress of American Indians, to Indian health and Indian education groups. Each year we put together—we call it “Indian 101”—we do that every year and build upon it to reach out to our colleagues to become members of the Native Caucus. As information and legislation [impacting Indian country] moves forward, the caucus serves as a way to network quickly and let folks know who in the tribal communities they should be reaching out to.
If you could sit down and personally educate Trump about Indian country, what would you want him to know?
Well, the Library of Congress has some wonderful books he can read about the broken promises, but also the resiliency, the creativity of tribal nations. When Indian country is succeeding, America is succeeding, too. I would encourage him to visit some reservations, including ones that have worked long and hard on self-governance and see what a difference that it makes when the federal government is a true partner with Indian country in improving the lives of tribal members. I would really hope that he would reach out to Indian country and just sit and listen and realize how much we can do together to improve the lives of so many people in this country.
Some tribal leaders and citizens are worried, given Trump’s background in the commercial casino industry and his past congressional testimony against tribal casinos, that he will be a foe of tribal gaming. Is it a valid concern?
He really needs to visit a tribe with a casino and see what they are able to accomplish as a result of Indian gaming—health care clinics, roads, Head Start centers, elder care. There is so much of a false narrative about what casino money really means in Indian country.
Trump pushed an economic development message very strongly during the campaign, and many tribes are still struggling mightily. Could Trump, realistically, be an economic hero for Native Americans?
It’s a blank slate. So, he now has that opportunity to be a good president for First Americans, who have a unique, nation-to-nation relationship [with the United States] that was built on treaties, real legal obligations. I truly wake up every day an optimist, but I live in the real world, and I know that we have a lot of work to do to educate and encourage President-elect Trump to reach out to Indian country and surround himself with the best and brightest in order to build on President Obama’s Indian country legacy. I’m ready to do the work, and I know Indian country is, too.
Are pipeline issues related to Keystone, Standing Rock, the Great Lakes going to immediately impact relations between the Trump administration and tribes?
There are some who don’t want any extraction, both in environmental and tribal communities; there are others who support extraction, but with sharp, crisp, clean regulations that leave no chance for pollution. If we know that the oil is going to be extracted, if it is to move on a pipeline, or even if it is transported on rail cars—there needs to be consultation directly with the impacted communities. What happened at Standing Rock, with the way the federal government took land away, plus the fact that there was little meaningful consultation, the Obama administration says it could have done a better job. But now they are down to their last few days. And whether or not President Obama can get this resolved, I don’t know. I just think that what happened at Standing Rock could have been avoided.
What about the new House—how do you expect it to perform on Indian issues?
I believe that it is the intention of the Republican members of the Interior committee that I serve with to move forward to continue to help making advancements in health care and education. I know transportation, infrastructure and water will also be a focus. But that means we also need a president who puts forward a budget that includes making investments in Indian country. One of the things that I’m very concerned about is the Interior appropriations bill, which is going to be a continuing resolution that will last for several months, and we’re going to start on the next budget. So we’re going to be doing two budgets at the same time, basically: finishing up this year and then the next budget for 2018. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but so does the president by not having an appropriations bill done.
Do you think the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs has done a good job for Indian country?
I think Tom [Cole] and I were very clear in a statement we made last year in terms of supporting tribal federal recognition. There’s been some deep disagreements in the committee on how to move forward on recognition of tribes. So it will be interesting to see where the Trump administration comes down on it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.