WASHINGTON – A proposed federal office meant to assist Native Americans may soon include the word “tribe” in its title – an official recognition of the importance of tribal sovereignty and rights, Indian advocates say.
Native Americans have long pushed for the explicit inclusion of tribes in various programs and offices across the government. Such efforts are now coming to a head in dealings with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During a recent consultation meeting with CDC officials in Atlanta, National Indian Health Board Chairman Reno Franklin highlighted tribal concerns involving the reorganization of the agency and its lack of a tribal office.
“With regard to the CDC’s new organization, the NIHB is gravely concerned that the creation of a new ‘Office of State and Local Support’ fails to meet the agency’s duty to acknowledge and address the special trust responsibility. … the agency has with Indian and Alaska Native tribes,” the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians citizen testified.
“Tribes are not states. Tribes are not a ‘local’ group. Tribes are independent, federally recognized governmental entities, which enjoy a unique government-to-government relationship with the United States under Article I of the Constitution, and for whom the United States exercises a special trust responsibility.”
Franklin said the state and local office designation is “offensive” to the special federal-tribal relationship and fails to honor the proper place Indian tribes have in the family of American governments.
The chairman said an implication of the CDC relegating tribes to local governments is that the agency would require tribes work through state and local municipalities or county governments in utilizing CDC resources.
“This has already occurred in the context of H1N1, where the CDC required tribes to work through the states to access vaccinations precisely at a time when tribes needed efficient and direct CDC access in order to address the unique vulnerability of their Indian populations to the H1N1 virus.
“Had tribes been able to directly work with the CDC, it is possible that some of the H1N1 deaths in Indian country would have been prevented.”
A December CDC report found that Indians experienced some of the highest death rates from the virus.
Franklin added that the missing tribal designation within the CDC’s reorganization symbolizes a failure by the agency to meet President Barack Obama’s call for improved tribal consultation.
CDC officials were apparently moved by the arguments of tribal leaders, as they very quickly chose to change the proposed name to the “Office for State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support.”
David Daigle, a spokesman for the agency, said the goal of the office from its conception was always to support states, localities, tribes and territories.
“We considered this name (including tribes in the title) at the onset and thought it was a bit long. However, it was pointed out that the shorter name was less transparent and the decision was made to revert to the longer name in order to be clearer about the focus of the office.”
Daigle said expressions of concern from tribal leaders helped CDC officials come to the decision to include tribes in the title. Agency leaders have not made the change official, as the next step requires that the changes be placed in the federal registry for public comment.
Stacy Bohlen, NIHB executive director, said the change is “a critical victory that goes beyond the symbolic.”
“We often say that one of the top afflictions from which Indian people suffer is anonymity,” said the citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
“Placing tribes in the name is not only a recognition of tribal government sovereignty and the trust responsibility the federal government has, it’s an affirmation at the highest levels of CDC that tribes are a significant priority to the agency’s mission.”
Bohlen shared that after tribal leaders raised this issue with CDC Director Thomas Frieden during the consultation, he responded, “When we make a mistake, we correct it and move on.”
“That CDC moved quickly on this following the consultation spoke well of Dr. Frieden as a leader of his word,” Bohlen said, expressing confidence that the change will be permanent.
Joe Finkbonner, the Lummi director of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, said any department name change, or reorganization is very complex within CDC, so he believes this move is “monumental and a significant signal that the new director respects tribal governments.”