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Trimble: Down from the summit

As I read accounts of the now-historic Tribal Nations Conference I can’t even imagine the excitement and power that filled the air at the meeting. With the gala opening of the National Congress of American Indian’s new embassy, and separate tribal consultation meetings in all the departments, the town had likely not seen such an array of tribal leaders since the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

But I feel somewhat of a let-down – something akin to that described by Kris Kristofferson in his hit song, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” What a high it has been, but there is a downside in the challenge to Indian country on how to best take advantage of the opening in the president’s executive memorandum for improved consultation.

The president’s speech was not disappointing. Considering the massive challenges he faces, he could make no substantial promises. But his statement on the poverty, health and education needs, and law and order problems in Indian communities, was encouraging, reflecting both a good personal understanding of Indian country and a sincere desire to do something to help address the problems. And it reflected the excellent work of his Native American staff in the White House.

The absence of any promises, especially for any initiatives that would require new outlays or increases in the budget, was realistic and honorable on his part, because for reasons I noted in a previous column about the summit, he would not be able to deliver.

But the president’s lone promise was significant: For improved consultation with the tribes in formulating policy and programs, adjusting rules and regulations, and perhaps more funding in the future. Effective and sincere consultation with the federal trustee has been a demand of the tribal leaders over many years. In an executive memorandum, dramatically signed in the presence of the entire summit, he directed the heads of the various departments to give him, within 90 days, a detailed plan on how they will consult and collaborate with tribes in the future. These will be interesting.

One thing, of course, that casts doubt on the permanence of any federal-tribal consultation process was his recalling that President Clinton had issued an executive order establishing regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration between tribes and the federal government. That order was not followed in the waning days of the Clinton administration, and was totally ignored, as far as I know, in the Bush administration.

The big question now is how the tribes will respond. What would be the best way to take advantage of the new consultation process?

By the very nature of the federal-tribal relationship, any consultation process is that of trustee consulting with the beneficiary of the trust – the tribes, or more specifically the tribal leaders as agents of their respective nations. Although it should warm up attitudes in the bureaucracy, this new consultation process probably won’t be an invitation to meet with a department secretary or agency head for most problems that any individual tribe may have with federal programs or policy. It certainly isn’t a promise of ongoing consultation with the president (“Yo, Barack; I’m coming into D.C. next week, how about a heads of state summit between you and me over lunch?”)

And although the government-to-government relationship is between the federal government and each of the individual tribal nations, not any collective group of those nations, the sheer number of sovereign tribal entities probably demands some sort of alliance or collective entity representing the tribes. This is important for avoiding conflicting requests for policy changes, and for keeping some semblance of unity in the causes.

This issue was taken up in 1993, when NCAI leaders urged Congress and the administration to authorize the study of arrangements that would improve tribal consultation with both entities. NCAI had proposed formation of an Inter-Departmental Council on Indian Affairs to consult with the administration; and a National Native American Advisory Commission to advise Congress. The responsibility for the study was given to the National Indian Policy Institute at George Washington University. I was commissioned by them to do a paper that would provide a historical backdrop for considering those councils, and an assessment of problems they would face in forming them. The following is a short statement that was included in my report, which was titled “Indian Representation in Washington: Considerations for Improved Federal-Indian Relations through Consultation.”

“This paper presents an historical backdrop against which the proposed Tribal-Federal Inter-Departmental Council on Indian Affairs and the proposed National Native American Advisory Commission can be effectively considered. By reviewing past efforts at improving federal-tribal relations, mistakes that have thwarted these efforts in the past can be avoided.

“In the quest for improvement of government-to-government relations, the federal and Indian sides are motivated by different priorities. The priority of federal officials, faced with a government-to-government relationship with more than 500 federally recognized tribes and communities, is for more efficient consultation. The tribes’ priority is for a better system of representation before Congress and at the highest levels possible in the executive.

“The Indian leaders promoting the new Inter-Department Council concept see the need for a ‘mechanism,’ established by Executive Order, to impress upon the executive the importance of its government-to-government relationship with the Indian nations, and to facilitate coordination among the various departments in the implementation of policies and programs pursuant to that special relationship. Moreover, they see the need for direct Indian involvement, through the IDCIA, in the development of Indian policy and in general oversight of programs serving Indian country pursuant to the federal trust relationship.

“Similarly, some have seen a need for a National Native American Advisory Commission that would work with the congressional Indian committees for establishment of national Indian policy and programs through legislation and for general oversight of federal Indian programs.

“However, while recognizing the need for efficient mechanisms to enhance the federal-tribal relationship, tribal leaders nevertheless may be unwilling to subordinate their own rights and prerogatives as sovereign entities for the sake of more efficient government-to-government consultation. Nor are they likely willing to forego debate and consensus in their own forums, such as NCAI, for merely ‘in-putting’ into a highly formalized process of securing Indian consensus positions in major issues to be taken up by a select advisory commission or council of their peers.”

That old report should be dusted off for consideration in the new challenge issued by the president. The federal side of a new consultation process will be devised by the departments pursuant to the executive memorandum signed by President Obama. The tribal side for improving the overall process will presumably have to be addressed.

The original, unedited version of this 1993 report is archived in my computer, and I will be happy to share it with any group that might be interested.

Charles E. Trimble is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He was principal founder of the American Indian Press Association in 1970, and served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians from 1972-78. He may be reached at cchuktrim@aol.com. His Web site is www.iktomisweb.com.