When it comes to political uncertainty, it seems that Indian country has cornered the market. The most profound current uncertainty derives from not knowing how the incoming Trump administration will address critical issues affecting Indian country today—or whether the Trump folks even comprehend the issues at stake.
This was made apparent at a December 14 transition meeting closed to press, but which attendees and others in Indian country have been talking about over the past month with trepidation.
At the meeting, approximately 300 representatives from American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, associations, consultants, and lobbying firms were hastily convened by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK and member of the Cherokee Nation) to voice Indian issues and concerns to Trump transition team envoys at an event hosted by the Western Caucus Foundation. Trump transition officials Eric Ueland, Ado Machida, and Doug Domenech accompanied by U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK and member of the Chickasaw nation), quietly tag-teamed in and out of the two-hour meeting during which approximately 50 speakers raised critical government-to-government issues facing Indian country.
Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said after the event that she was pleased that the Trump team recognized the need to hold a meeting, and she was "ecstatic" that so many interested parties from Indian country showed up.
“Knowing that Indian country is so well-versed and willing to engage on the issues left them with a good impression," Pata said. "There are a lot of areas that we should be partnering on, and the Trump team seemed energized by that."
In spite of time constraints on speakers due to the sheer volume of attendees, Pata said that she felt like everything she wanted to come up during the session did. Speakers consistently put the importance of infrastructure, the value of education to the success of Indian communities, the protection of tribal sovereignty, self-determination without over regulation – especially concerning energy development – and economic drivers on the table. She added that she would include the need to review the much overlooked impact of state government policies on tribes as well.
Pata added that former Alaska state Sen. Jerry Ward, who was named Trump team liaison to Indian country in December, had asked NCAI to draft a five-point plan to inform President-elect Donald Trump on Indian country matters over his first 100 days in office. Instead, the plan is expected to cover his first 200 days due to sheer number of substantive topics it highlights, according to Pata. NCAI will also continue to offer names to the administration to get the right people in key government slots in the new administration.
Pata was cautiously optimistic about the nomination of U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT) as Trump’s Secretary of the Department of the Interior. She believes that "...his knowledge and working relationship with tribes in Montana certainly gives him experience with the challenges that the tribes are facing."
Overall, Pata was sanguine on the Trump administration's ability to strike up a good relationship with Indian country. Even though transition officials were not very familiar with Indian country or its issues, they plan to surround themselves with insiders who will infuse them with the knowledge and information they need to know. Pata went on to say that such forums were critical to dialogue with Indian country, and she hoped they continued.
Gavin Clarkson, Associate Professor in the Department of Finance at New Mexico State University, seconded Pata's comments and to some degree, her optimism. He agreed that it was a very substantive meeting given its last-minute nature.
Clarkson noted that Trump team members were more intent on listening, asking no questions and making no comments other than those posed by Mullin and Cole, which seemed curious and unusual to Clarkson, at least. He also said that one of the transition officials told the audience that Trump himself "personally requested" the meeting take place.
Clarkson also lauded the pragmatism with which Indian leadership spoke. They were "outstanding" – well-prepared, focused on specifics and proffered policy-rich proposals. They also offered briefing books to the Trump team to fill in their knowledge gaps. According to Clarkson, the Trump team recognizes their learning curve is going to be steep, and Mullin pledged to surround it with individuals well-versed in Indian country matters.
Clarkson's takeaway was essentially that tribes should be in control of their own destiny. But, he added, they repeatedly raised the point that "it is hard to do things in Indian country because of job killing [forces] that lead to disastrous economic impacts" on the tribes. These include the number of policies tribes have to wade through and bureaucratic red tape they have to cut to make progress. The overarching attitude of the speakers emphasized that the days of asking permission to do things on their own land needs to end, he said.
As to his opinion about the incoming administration, Clarkson said, "It's either going to be really good or really bad, but I am personally quite optimistic."
Kevin Allis, President of Thunderbird Strategic LLC and Chairman of the Board of Potawatomi Big Development Corporation, fleshed out another layer of complexity in the problems affecting Indian country: there was no discussion on how judicial appointments impact Indian country. This, he asserted, was a significant omission. Unlike many, though, Allis doesn't accept that Trump appointments to the Supreme Court will be a game changer in Indian country.
"Sovereignty has been chiseled away in courts due to unfamiliarity with Indian law," – almost all at the appellate level, Allis said. Facing 14 unfilled appellate judgeships and 84 district court vacancies, Trump has an opportunity to fill those seats with appointees that have the knowledge of Indian country law and a commitment to tribal self-determination, he added.
In an interview after the meeting, Cole echoed much of what Pata, Clarkson, and Allis said, labeling the discussion as "robust" with "great unanimity amongst the tribes and others representing their interests."
Cole characterized the meeting as a "respectful hearing," with "more listening than questioning from the Trump team...and no pontificating." He said that in his memory, this audience "was about as early as anyone had reached out to Indian country following an election." He took this as an indication of interest from Trump and a positive sign of the Trump's team desire to understand Indian country issues. Overall, although the issues ran the gamut, they coalesced around sovereignty, "...because everything is based on sovereignty," Cole said, and economic development, especially tribal control of their own destiny.
Although on the surface it would appear that Cole serves as the touchstone from the incoming administration to Indian country, he disagreed. He believes that Mullin is much closer to the Trump team than he is, and although a relative newcomer to the House, more likely to emerge wearing that badge.
Steeped in Indian country issues, Cole described Mullin as an interested and able learner. He views Interior Secretary nominee Zinke as "very engaged on Indian country issues" and characterized him as someone who "spends a lot of time in my office on a lot of issues."
As for Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D), the new chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Cole has not yet formed an opinion simply because he doesn't know him well yet. "I'll wait and see," Cole said, just as he did when asked what his role on Indian country affairs will be in the upcoming administration.
Cole said with certainty, however, that if he sees the Trump team and Trump himself "veering away from the basic Indian country principles," he won't hesitate to break ranks with them...or the Republican Party.
"I will be on the side of Indian country," Cole said. "They've had a good start, but it's only a start," he surmised of the Trump team, yet it remains to be seen how they deal with the reality of budgets and daunting bureaucracy.
For all, the way ahead is continued Indian leadership dialogue with the Trump team and the insertion of Indian – and Indian country-friendly non-Indian appointees – in key administration positions. Only the weeks ahead will tell whether that message was heard loud and clear.
Editor's note: Edits for clarity were made to the original article on January 18, 2017 after a follow-up exchange with Professor Clarkson.