With concerns mounting in Indian country that the Trump administration is ignoring and in some cases harming tribes, some top Democratic members of Congress are calling for the new president to immediately begin meetings of the White House Council on Native American Affairs.
The White House Council on Native American Affairs, established through an executive order signed by President Barack Obama four years ago, is meant to keep federal agencies focused on American Indian issues, funding, and priorities by increasing communication and coordination across agencies.
Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who headed the White House Council on Native American Affairs in the Obama administration, told ICMN in January that she found the institution to be an important tool in helping federal agencies beyond the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services remember that they, too, have important commitments to tribes through treaty and trust obligations. She also said it would be important for tribal leaders to remind the Trump administration about the White House Council on Native American Affairs, as well as the annual White House Tribal Nations Conferences held under Obama, if tribes wanted those things to continue.
Democrats in Congress are currently leading the way on this, having sent a letter to Trump on March 6 asking him “to demonstrate your commitment to open and responsive engagement with Indian country by carrying on these important institutions during your presidency. The Federal Government has a unique nation-to-nation relationship with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes grounded in the United States Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and Supreme Court decisions,” Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Jon Tester (D-MT), Al Franken (D-MN), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) wrote in the letter.
Udall, who is the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has already expressed concern that the Trump administration performed no consultation with the Sioux tribes before Trump issued his sweeping January 24 order to continue with the Dakota Access Pipeline, sans an environmental impact statement and without meeting with affected tribes. Tribal officials are also alarmed that Environmental Protection Agency grants in the agency’s budget have already been ordered by Trump to be cut by 30 percent. Tribes fear many more cuts across agencies due to the administration’s focus on curbing domestic spending, while it proposes to vastly increase military funding.
“[T]he White House Council has succeeded in promoting an ‘all-of-government’ approach to fulfilling the federal government’s trust responsibilities,” the senators wrote to Trump. “Established by Executive Order in 2013, the White House Council has since increased federal engagement with tribal stakeholders by bringing inter-agency principals together to address pressing issues in Indian country. Such engagement has resulted in tribal initiatives being implemented in a more effective manner across all federal agencies.”
Also of concern for the senators and for Indian country is whether Trump will continue to hold conferences with the hundreds of tribal leaders across the nation. Obama held eight such annual meetings during his presidency, where several pro-tribal initiatives were announced and consultation on hundreds of issues was conducted over the years of his administration. Administration officials also regularly traveled to Indian country and met with tribal leaders in smaller settings in D.C. on specific issues.
“Tribal consultation is the bedrock on which that nation-to-nation relationship is built and, for eight years, the Tribal Nations Conference has served as a signature example of the Executive Branch’s efforts to improve consultation,” the senators wrote in their letter. “These annual summits have given tribal leaders a seat at the table during discussions with Cabinet-level and senior members of the Executive Branch on how the United States can best fulfill its trust and treaty obligations.
To date, the White House has not said whether it plans to continue either the White House Council on Native American Affairs or the annual White House Tribal Nations Conferences, and officials there have not responded to requests for comment.
The good news from the Republican side of the aisle so far is that Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, appears to be an ally of better communication between tribes and the Trump administration.
"As the new administration and Congress begin the work ahead, it is critical that tribal leaders have a seat at the table,” Hoeven told ICMN on March 7. “That's why I support a forum to bring together the White House, Congress and tribal leaders to discuss solutions, whether it be a White House Council or another initiative unique to the new administration. This is necessary to ensure effective communication and consultation.
“As Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I look forward to working with the administration to uphold and strengthen our government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes."