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Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Tumbleweeds aren’t rolling through the streets of Washington, D.C., but the hustle and bustle is looking a bit different in the nation’s capital.

Due to COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns over the last year plus, Native organizations haven’t been able to host conferences and events in Washington or across the country. The U.S. House and Senate hearings have also gone virtual in many cases.

Protecting their communities and themselves, tribal leaders have forgone travel to the Capitol and left to conduct business in the virtual world for better and for worse.

Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians Chairperson Aaron Payment is a frequent traveler to Washington. Sometimes he would travel twice a month, although with a caveat, Payment does not fly.

The drive from northern Michigan is no small jaunt either, taking about 13 hours one-way. Payment said he is far from the only tribal leader who regularly travels to Washington.

“There's a core group of us, I'd probably (say) at least a dozen or so of us, that are on multiple committees that were traveling regularly to help effectuate upholding the treaty and trust responsibility and advocating for good federal Indian policy,” Payment said. “So it's really changed and I got to tell you that I don't really mind not having to travel.”

Aaron Payment and other tribal leaders at the State of Indian Nations Address at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on February 11, 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)
Tribal leaders, media and guests at the State of Indian Nations Address at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on February 11, 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)
Tribal leaders with Deb Haaland at the State of Indian Nations Address at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on February 11, 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

Theresa Sheldon, Tulalip Tribes, was someone who frequently interacted with tribal leaders and Native organizations who would go to D.C. As the Native American Political Director at the Democratic National Committee since 2019, Sheldon coordinates with all levels of Indian Country on issues impacting Native voters.

She says her main focus is to ensure tribes are part of the committee and that “our policies and platform reflect this responsibility.”

Before the pandemic, the committee would host monthly in-person events and used presidential debates and related election events to meet with tribal leaders in person to discuss the presidential platform in person.

It may have taken some longer than others to get the hang of it but the virtual world has allowed for more participation in certain sectors.

Sheldon, for one, believes that video and audio conferencing applications like Zoom have made members of Congress more available, as well as letting tribal leaders participate in Capitol Hill hearings whereas they might not normally travel for it.

“I actually believe the pandemic has made members of Congress even more available through Zoom calls and their social media channels, where you can see them providing video updates and sharing information with their constituents,” Sheldon said. “There is never enough time in the day to make all things happen but I feel elected officials are able to share their messages and be even more engaged with the use of technology.”

Payment shared some of the same sentiments but noted that the virtual environment can never replace the face-to-face interactions.

“I think everybody's making a genuine effort, but I think those who are our advocates for Indian Country, those who we have good relationships with in Congress are more inclined to listen to us,” he said. “And some of those other ones who are either on the fence or the ones that we have to constantly educate; I think we're at a disadvantage for persuading them. I think the zoom environment is not the same thing.”

A hearing in front of the Senate of Indian Affairs Committee in Washington D.C. on December 12, 2018. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

Holly Cook-Macarro, Red Lake Band of Ojibwe, is a partner Spirit Rock Consulting and advises tribal governments on federal legislative matters and helps establish strong intergovernmental relationships.

Over the past year, she says much of tribal advocacy has been pandemic related. As there is now some “light at the end of the tunnel,” advocates are looking at opportunities for things that weren’t included in past legislation, like tribal priorities that weren’t included in the 2017 tax bill and infrastructure.

Similar to Sheldon, Cook-Macarro believes members of Congress have been plenty accessible.

“I think given the outsize impacts of the pandemic in Indian country, there was significant Congressional outreach on how best to address both the immediate and systemic issues and appropriately provide relief,” she said.

In Cook-Macarro’s view, the usual day for tribal leaders of back to back meetings, running around Capitol Hill wasn’t always the most effective. Having conducted so much business virtually over the past year, it has shown that tribal advocacy can be done well both in virtual settings and in-person.

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“The American Rescue Plan’s tribal funding is the single largest infusion of tribal resources into Indian country in history…and I doubt there was a single in-person meeting prior to its passage,” she said.

One thing is for certain, the in-person events that bring tribal leaders and tribal citizens to D.C. are very much missed.

American Indian Higher Education Consortium President and CEO Carrie L. Billy, Navajo, talking with a lawkmaker at THE FUTURE ACT gathering at the U.S. Capitol in December 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

Patrese Atine, Navajo, is the director of congressional and federal relations for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and they were unable to hold their annual legislative summit this year.

Normally, tribal college presidents, administrators and occasionally students would go to the nation’s capital.

“I really miss seeing all of our presidents, having in person meetings, those were always a really good opportunity to meet with each other and hear about all the positive things that are happening on each other's campuses,” Atine said.

The in-person meetings are more often than not happy occasions but they can also provide solace. Unfortunately, Atine said there were multiple tribal college community deaths in the past year due to COVID.

“We've lost one of our tribal college presidents to COVID and other tribal college leaders like senior staff members and faculty members,” Atine said. “So we, one thing that's hard is we haven't been able to grieve or mourn together. You know that's something that you can't necessarily do virtually, doesn't feel the same.”

Native college students wait outside the office of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, before a meeting during tribal college week in Washington, D.C. in February 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)
Native college students introduce themselves in their Native languages in the office of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and her staff during tribal college week in Washington, D.C. in February 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)
New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, stood for a photo with Native college students and the president of the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute during tribal college week in Washington, D.C. in February 2019. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

One event that had to be canceled but would’ve come with some fanfare was the confirmation of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo.

The White House shut down the planned 50-person Southwest themed party after concerns were raised that it would be a superspreader event, according to a March report from Politco.

When talking about what they missed most about coming together, Sheldon and Payment spoke about the spirit and joy Native people have at those events.

“I miss the hugs, the smiles, and the encouragement of gathering in person. We are communal people, we thrive together,” Sheldon said. “I love attending Native conferences because I get to embrace and breathe in the hard work being done by so many brilliant Native professionals.”

She went on to say policy work can feel isolating at times and fellow Natives in the field can help lift you up.

“When you are a policy nerd, it’s easy to feel alone when you don’t have that opportunity to connect with others who share your passion,” she said. “It is also great to learn from each other as we are constantly problem solving and thinking of innovative ways to address historical issues. “

A celebratory gathering on January 2, 2019, for Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, after they were elected as the first two Native women into Congress in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today, File)

While it has been a difficult year in many facets, Payment spoke to how gatherings help Native people survive through struggle and that he’s missed the hugs and handshakes as well.

“Just that, that spirit of all being in this together. I think that I missed that,” Payment said. “You know, one of the things that's been really challenging about this pandemic is as Indian people, we are survivors.”

The pandemic is not going to last forever and with the continued rollout of the COVID vaccine, hopes are on the rise for a return to a semi-normalcy. Although, the work never stops and while it’s a non-election year, Sheldon hopes for people to stay involved.

“We have to stay engaged with the state laws to ensure our voting rights remain protected — please stay engaged, we need our grassroots leaders and elected tribal leaders to continue this critical work together on the local level.”

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