They didn't sit stoically. They weren't awestruck by the charismatic Barack Obama. They weren't hoping to nudge the needle forward on a few contemporary Indian issues. For several tribal leaders, this year’s White House Tribal Nations Conference was time to get down to the serious business of advancing a proactive, activist agenda.
Many tribal leaders prepared for long hours before attending the day-long session, held Dec. 16 at the Interior Department. Their preparation showed, as they raised a number of substantive issues for administration officials to contemplate, sometimes on controversial issues like Obama administration failings to support specific tribal economic development.
Some were sensitive to coverage of last year’s event, which illustrated that tribal attendees were overjoyed in some cases to see President Barack Obama in person, and sometimes gushed over him.
Gushing was kept to a minimum this year, although tribal leaders were more than willing to applaud for positive steps they think the administration has made, including settling the Cobell and Keepseagle cases, signing the Tribal Law and Order Act, and reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
Their applause was especially loud when Obama told them his intention to have the U.S. begin supporting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, although many immediately began wondering what that would mean in terms of specific policy dealings and changes to federal-tribal relations.
They were also more than willing to be critical. In break-out sessions, some asked why the administration hadn’t done more to get Congress to pass a fix to the Supreme Court’s 2009 Carcieri decision, which limited Interior’s ability to take land into trust for tribes. Administration officials insisted they pushed hard on that matter, and promised to continue to do so – with tribal leaders promising to keep up the pressure.
Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter bluntly told Obama in a policy paper that he believed the president “has not put forward a strategic plan” to achieve goals to making tribal nations “full partners in America’s economy” – words Obama himself had used at his first tribal nations summit.
“Instead, he has set forth 26 proposed action items on multiple subjects that reflect a scattershot approach that undermines his commitment to any meaningful or lasting change,” the paper said.
Porter added in an interview that the Obama administration should be praised for the accomplishments it has made on Indian issues, but he cautioned that too much of the perceived progress has been focused on settling past injustices, like the Cobell case, rather than moving forward with proactive, visionary plans.
Porter said that if the president fails to embrace an aggressive Indian country legislative agenda, he runs the risk of focusing solely on administrative policy changes and legislative appropriation that “only promotes cosmetic changes to the status quo.”
In other words, don't expect lasting, significant change.
Indian leaders suggested several proactive routes for long-term transformation, including the establishment of a tribal economic empowerment demonstration project, Indian country development bank legislation, and reservation land title restoration and development legislation.
Pan-Indian messages were also delivered, especially by the National Congress of American Indians. In terms of an overall message, the group presented a wide-ranging document to the White House touching on a smattering of numerous tribal issues. The organization also coordinated strategy sessions with its members the day before the event in an effort to hone their message.
Porter said he appreciates what NCAI tries to do with its unity message, but feels its message is sometimes so immense that strategy ends up being watered down, failing to go into much depth on particular issues.
Various tribal leaders were willing to break off from the pack, delivering their own unique sovereign messages as if to make the point that pan-Indian unity is fine in many scenarios, but each tribal nation also has its own issues to consider.
Alaska Native leaders, for instance, noted that they face many unique challenges and state laws that should make their situations deserve special focus from the administration. Some suggested the president hold a meeting with Alaska Natives each year in order to accommodate their needs.
Porter, meanwhile, offered frustration centering on Seneca’s recent negative dealings with the Obama administration over the Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking, or PACT Act. Obama signed the legislation in March, banning the U.S. Postal Service from delivering cigarettes and certain other tobacco products. The action eliminated much of Seneca’s ability to have a self-sustaining economy.
In turn, some leaders pushed new legislation at the summit that would restore tribal self-governing authority and jurisdiction over tribal lands that has been lost through prior legislative, judicial and administrative actions – especially restoring exclusive tribal taxing and regulatory over all Indian tribal lands.
Other tribal leaders presented messages that could be good for all of Indian country, but they didn’t hold back to be granted approval from their peers in order to speak what was on their minds.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, for instance, delivered a concept paper to the White House focused on the idea of establishing a National Commission on Tribal Economic Development. He specifically asked that Obama create such a group by executive order in January composed of 12 currently-elected tribal leaders that would culminate in a report to Congress.
According to Hall’s request, the report would contain recommendations to improve Native American reservation economies through administrative and congressional action, providing the first-ever national measurements of Native American economic indicators, including reservation-by-reservation unemployment, income and poverty indices.
One goal would be to create a six-year plan to reduce unemployment by 50 percent and add one million reservation jobs.
Beyond the walls of Interior on the day of the event, Indians who weren’t invited to meet the president made their issues known, and asked tribal leaders to be stronger advocates.
Along those lines, at a reception for tribal leaders held at the National Museum of the American Indian a couple of days before the summit, National Indian Education Association President Mary Jane Oatman-Wak Wak implored leaders to present some of the group’s talking points as they met with the administration.
“We need all of you to listen up,” she said to a loud, crowded room of chatting Indian officials. “We need all of you, when you meet with President Obama, to advance Native education as one of your goals.”
Some tribal leaders nodded, but many didn’t look up, and went on chatting about their own business of the moment.