UPDATE, June 8: Kevin Washburn, assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs from 2012 to 2016, says that President Donald Trump’s Interior budget, released in late May, includes $15 million in cuts to programs that aid Interior in taking land into trust for tribes.
The U.S. Department of the Interior is promising not to slash land acquisitions on behalf of tribes as part of the recently released Trump budget, although the White House is concurrently proposing vast cuts to Indian-related programs across a wide swath of federal agencies.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, released in May, raised the issue of cuts to federal land acquisition programs by indicating that $129 million was on the chopping block.
Heather Swift, a spokesperson for Interior, told ICMN that federal Indian-related land acquisition initiatives would be untouched; Trump’s land acquisition cuts would come through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which she said, “does not support land acquisition for tribal lands.
“Federal land acquisition funding has been used to purchase land for inclusions in national parks, wildlife refuges, and other public lands,” Swift said. “The savings realized from the reduction to land acquisition [through the Land and Water Conservation Fund] allows the department to prioritize operations across the department including in Indian affairs.”
Last fall, the Obama administration boasted that it had restored more than a half-million acres of tribal homelands via federal land acquisitions; tribal observers believe it is unlikely that Trump will match that gesture. The administration recently indicated that it plans to end the tribal land buyback program that was an integral part of the Cobell settlement, which had served to make tribal lands more whole by reducing fractionated interests.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in a press call held May 23, said the Trump budget “supports Indian trust responsibilities with focus on self-government, self-determination and sovereignty,” but he did not take any Indian-related questions on the call. The White House has similarly not responded to multiple queries on Indian affairs and funding issues since Trump was inaugurated January 20. Interior officials have been unable to point to a White House press person who focuses on Indian affairs.
The promise from the Trump administration not to reduce land acquisitions for tribes comes at a time when many tribes and Indians are concerned that the current White House, as well as Republican Congress members and Interior officials widely wish to privatize Indian lands, while curbing the federal trust relationship to tribes involving land acquisition.
Trump transition official U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) made unclear statements to Reuters on this issue in December, and the House Natural Resources Oversight Subcommittee recently held a hearing encouraged by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), an emerging tribal foe, aimed at curbing tribal sovereignty for tribes recognized after 1934. Zinke also announced May 26 that he was hiring James Cason as associate deputy secretary of Interior. Cason was infamous in Indian country when he served at Interior during the George W. Bush administration for opposing trust land for tribes and for rallying against Indian gaming. He recently testified before Congress that he believes land purchased under the Cobell buyback program should be held by the federal government, rather than go directly to tribes, which was the intention of the program. Bishop and Cason have not responded to requests for comment.
Trump himself has raised questions about his commitment to Indian-related programs by releasing a signing statement in early May that called into question the necessity of the federal government to fund programs, such as Native American Housing Block Grants at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and minority programs for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are sister institutions to Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs). Trump also testified against Indian gaming before Congress in the 1990s, which he later apologized for when trying to partner with a tribe on building its casino.
“My administration shall treat provisions that allocate benefits on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender in a manner consistent with the requirement to afford equal protection of the laws under the Due Process Clause of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment,” Trump wrote, indicating that funding for programs related in any way to “race” may be illegal.
The National American Indian Housing Council quickly fired back, noting in a statement, “These programs are not based on race or ethnicity, but rather on the centuries-long political relationship between tribes and the United States.”
Many Interior officials currently serving in the federal government have also noted that the federal trust responsibility to tribes does not rely on race, but on federal law rooted in the Constitution and in U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Carrie Billy, president of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, told ICMN that she hopes the president’s language about race pertaining to HBCUs was a result of staff mistakes, rather than a true indication of an administration that will fail to support minority higher education.
“I do not believe the statement regarding HBCUs was a reflection of the president’s support for our sister institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Billy said. “Rather, it was more likely [due to] crossed wires among staff. I believe this for two reasons: (1) the recent Executive Order [supporting] Historically Black Colleges and Universities; and (2) the quick action by the White House to clarify the issue.”
Billy noted that the president issued a statement soon after the signing language was released reiterating his “unwavering support for HBCUs and their critical educational missions” and stating that the administration has no intention of eliminating or cutting the program.
Later in May, Trump released his full budget, which alarmed many in Indian country for the sheer number of steep Indian-related reductions it contained. A widely cited Associated Press report noted that the budget would cut $64 million in federal Native American funding for education, $21 million for law enforcement and safety, $27 million for natural resources management programs run by tribes, and $23 million from human services; it would additionally end funding for tribal work on climate change and cut block grant programs that offer housing assistance for Native Americans.
“The cutbacks to tribal programs are cutting into the bone and fail to recognize very real and critically important needs,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), in a statement. Her organization represents 57 Native American tribes in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, California, Montana and Idaho.
At a meeting of ATNI tribes in late May, Sharp, who is also president of the Quinault Indian Nation, told tribal leaders that the Trump administration did not consult with tribes about the proposed cuts. “It is a two-way street,” she said. “President Obama had made consultation with tribes a priority in his administration. The current administration has failed to do so.”
Sharp further implored that Zinke try to understand what it truly means for the federal government to take its trust responsibility to tribes seriously.
Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Swinomish Tribe, said at ATNI regarding the budget, “Congress has a moral responsibility to live up to its responsibility to tribes, and we will hold its members accountable.”
The American Indian College Fund said in a statement that the Trump budget proposes a temporary suspension of construction of new Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools and suggests cuts to the overall BIE school budget by $64.4 million, and it eliminates $65 million in funding for two programs that serve Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students. Several other broad education cuts also disproportionately affect Indian students, the organization warned.
Said Chris Stearns (Navajo), a lawyer with Hobbs Straus and president of the Seattle Indian Health Board: “Trump’s proposed budget makes him the 21st Century’s version of Gozer the Destructor. His budget, combined with the [repeal of the Affordable Care Act], would likely cut Medicaid funding in half. Those cuts, along with a 20 percent cut from the Children's Health Insurance Program, will have a devastating effect on services to Native Americans. And not just those served in Indian country, but especially those living in urban areas.”
Many members of Congress, including Republicans, were likewise skeptical of the Trump budget. U.S. Rep. Don Young (R-AK), former chair of the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement that the budget was dead on arrival for a variety of reasons, not least of which that it doesn’t add up.
“It’s the President’s duty to submit a budget to Congress, but it’s our responsibility to implement one and to set spending,” Young said. “Largely, this budget is a vision document and people shouldn’t get overly excited. If I had to sum it up quickly, I’d say this proposal was dead in Congress before the ink was even dry.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement that the budget violates U.S. treaty and trust obligations to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.
“The cuts total more than $300 million for the Indian Health Service, $370 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education, and $50 million for Native American housing,” Udall said. “The proposals to drain funding from Medicaid and eliminate critical programs — such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides life-saving heating assistance to families and elders in Indian country – further underscore the president’s callous disregard for Indian country.”
One device that could help Trump craft a better Indian-focused budget in the future, tribal leaders say, is to reanimate the dormant White House Council on Native American Affairs, which was instituted by executive order under the Obama administration and helped coordinate Native-focused budget issues across federal agencies with Interior leading the charge.
When asked whether the White House Council on Native American Affairs played a role in shaping Trump’s currently unpopular budget, Swift, the Interior spokesperson, said, “The budget was prepared in coordination with the White House and OMB (the Office of Management and Budget).” She would not say whether the council is operational any longer.