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A White House listening session with tribal leaders this week was not what anyone expected. At one point, a tribal leader called it “horrible.” But the conversation will continue.

The session, which was closed to the press, started out as an open dialogue with White House staff, the Department of the Interior, and tribal leaders. The White House staff initially responded to concerns from tribal leaders, but then said there was only enough time for tribes to raise issues without any response. Some tribal leaders said they were not being heard and left the room.

The meeting was part of the four-day tribal nations policy summit at the winter session of the National Congress of American Indians. It was held at the Capital Hilton, a few blocks away from the White House.

Tribal leaders spoke with two White House advisors, William Crozer, special assistant to the president and deputy director of intergovernmental affairs, and Theodore Wold, special assistant to the president for domestic policy. Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs also sat in the meeting.

One of those who left was Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner. He complained about the meeting being closed to the press and said NCAI created a barrier with the structure of the session. He has been invited to meet with the White House again as soon as next month.

Candi Bring Plenty, administrative assistant to Bear Runner, said a day before the session NCAI hosted a prep meeting. “They gave tribal leaders speaking points and directives and initiatives on how they wanted the conversation to go. They wanted to have a White House council,” she said over the phone on Thursday. “There has not been any initiation or conversation or consultation with the tribal nations. The only way there has been any initiation is derogatory tweets and name calling from number 45.” (President Donald J. Trump is the 45th man to serve in that office.)

However she used her cell phone to capture 12 minutes of Bear Runner talking in the session and posted it via a Facebook live video. NCAI staff members and security told her to stop recording, heard as whispers in the background, but she told them the community wants to know what’s going on.

Bear Runner said he objected to the session being closed to the media.

“People are wanting to know what's being said, but people are wanting to know what the White House has to say,” he said, adding that NCAI was part of the problem.

“I feel like I've been oppressed again to keep my mouth shut because you said we want to prevent the negative from happening,” Bear Runner said to Keel standing behind a podium and the three others. “I mean it's going to happen because that's how we hold each other accountable. How do we hold the White House accountable? The truth hurts. It does hurt. I know it's not your fault, you know? I know. I'm not trying to be mean or angry towards you, but it's because of this governing system. And you sit in a position where you have the authority to change you know, the Interior, you know, you have your established within our agency, but yet coming into this position, there's so much red tape or so much hoops for us to jump through.”

(Photo by Mark Trahant)

(Photo by Mark Trahant)

The president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and his staff left the meeting after NCAI President Jefferson Keel, Chickasaw, told Bear Runner that if they think the session was a waste of time, they should leave.

Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Indian Tribe in Long Island, New York, attended the session and confirmed Keel’s comment. Wallace also left the session at that point.

Wallace didn’t know the others who left the meeting and didn’t know how many others had left..

The Unkechaug leader initially thought of how “horrible” the meeting was, but he can see how NCAI is trying to communicate with the White House, especially with tribal leaders expressing their concerns.

“Most people who spoke sincerely believe that they were being listened to. I just questioned whether or not they were being heard. They had some sincere concerns, they had some serious issues,” he said. “All legitimate and very serious issues.”

Issues surrounding water rights, protection of their women, protection of their family, economic development, housing, education and health were raised while he was in the room.

NCAI released a statement Friday afternoon from Keel. 

“I agree with my fellow tribal leaders that nation-to-nation consultation and engagement is the cornerstone of the treaty and trust relationship. NCAI would never suggest otherwise or attempt to interfere with direct nation-to-nation communications,” he said. “NCAI provided a room for White House staff to hold their listening session with tribal leaders after the NCAI Executive Council Winter Session because we believed it would be a first step in educating the White House about the federal-tribal relationship.”

“We have consistently urged the current Administration and its predecessors to engage directly with sovereign tribal nations at the highest levels, including through meetings with the Cabinet members and the President. We have also called for the White House to establish a White House Council on Native Nations (DEN-18-027). I don’t want any tribal leader to feel like coming to Washington DC is a waste of their time. Representing our citizens with the federal government and other tribal nations is one of our most important responsibilities as leaders.”

“I have apologized directly to President Bear Runner for my choice of words. I look forward to traveling to the Great Plains to meet with tribal leaders to discuss their concerns and how we can work together to address the grave challenges Indian Country is facing,” Keel said. 

Indian Country Today has also reached out to the White House for a comment. 

Bear Running spoke about the Dakota Access pipeline running under the Missouri River, his tribe’s water resource and how the government continues to take, including natural resources, without consultation.

Bear Runner also questioned if the administration was even hearing them.

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“My heart is very sad. You know that the White House, we've been neglected for a long time,” he said.

He said he wasn’t convinced the session was “a new platform for tribal leaders to directly engage with the White House.” The goal he said, as it had been in the Obama administration, should be a foundation for future collaboration and a council of tribal leaders.

“You know we're talking about establishing a White House Council on Native nations. We already had that. It's called government to government negotiations. Our government to government consultations and those aren't happening,” he said.

Bear Runner said it’s clear the president “has no education on what he’s talking about” with his tweets about the Battle of Little Bighorn and Pocahontas.

“He wants to tweet all of these things when we're facing real life issues. We’re trying to survive” after “systemic annihilation,” such as boarding schools that stripped Native people of their languages, their hair and spirituality and still traumatized by it all.

Bear Runner supports the creation of the White House council. It was done in the previous administration.

When the tribal leader and his staff stood up to leave, one of of the White House advisors invited them to the White House the next time they were back in town. And this could be the outcome of their Washington trip. The advisors didn’t want the Oglala Sioux staff to think they wasted their time, said Brings Plenty. 

Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, confirmed the “kind of hot and heavy” listening session and that “you could feel the frustration in the room.”

“And rightfully so, you know. Indian Country has always had the short end of the stick since European contact,” he said. “And so we'd be requesting for a seat at the table. We requested for true consultation.”

The vice chairman also mentioned the previous administration’s efforts to reach out to tribes “where all tribal leaders would come and convene, actually have a discussion with the president and top-level cabinet people. We don't want to have consultation with lower level because they're in a situation where they have no deciding authority.”

Jose recalled the White House staff “indicated that they've had an open door policy and that they met with several tribes before. They've welcomed tribes to meet with them.”

So he thinks this probably wasn’t the first meeting between the White House and tribal nations.

“But you know, tribes are think are saying is that hey look, look, federal government, you have a responsibility. Come to us. Come see us. Why should we have to go to you? You know, we come to you, you listen to us, nothing happens. Why don't you come out and talk to us? Why don't you come out and see things? And I believe that's what tribal leaders are requesting,” Jose said after a reception Wednesday evening.

The vice chairman said the federal government and Interior have reached out to his tribe on a couple of occasions. His tribe received financial help after Hurricane Rosa in October. Sweeney visited when one of the schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education had a serious situation happening. She came with staff who worked at a regional and national offices.

“We need to work together and that tribal nations across America want a seat at a table,” Jose said. “Tribal nations must have a seat at the table. You know, the federal government and the administration has a trust responsibility. They have a moral responsibility to try and they have a fiduciary responsibility. We also talked about having true consultation, true meaningful consultation with tribes and the appropriate individuals that represent the tribe. Not just having a session and going out there and a few people show up and checked the box all we've consulted with them.”

A heated discussion can happen but the “measure of that meeting is what can happen here after. Actions speak louder than words. So we'll wait and see,” Jose said.

Nedra Darling, director of public affairs with the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs emailed Indian Country Today a statement from Sweeney regarding the listening session.

"I am encouraged that the White House is engaged at NCAI. The listening session was productive and the first of many steps along the path of formal engagement with Indian Country. I am thankful the White House offered to host the listening session during NCAI, including at the venue where tribal leadership convened,” Sweeney wrote. “Thank you to the tribal leaders that were able to attend. Indian Affairs stands ready to further promote additional engagement with the White House, and to lead on issues facing Indian Country."

Sweeney's statement was received before Indian Country Today found out about the White House invite.

Bear Runner will visit the White House on March 6 and 7 during appropriations week. The details will be worked out in the days to come.

(The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.)

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email:

Correction: This article has been corrected since its initial publication.