Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis
Gila River Indian Community
In October 2020, I met with then-candidate Joe Biden and vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris. Both promised an administration that would not only recognize tribal sovereignty, but leadership committed to making decisions based on that sovereignty. Tribal nations, they vowed, would be treated as equal partners in all government-to-government relationships and agreements.
In Indian Country, we have heard such promises many times before. As the White House Tribal Nations Summit has approached, a quick review of the actions taken by the administration to date shows that this White House has, in fact, shown a sustained commitment to Indian Country during the first year of the Biden presidency. Something else is noticeable as well: This administration has taken the foundation of the federal-tribal relationship and built upon it.
Over the past 20 months, as the United States has dealt with an unprecedented pandemic, Indian Country has been especially hard hit and in need of a strong federal partner. This administration has come through with historic levels of funding in the American Rescue Plan Act, with $20 billion in emergency funding allocated directly to tribal governments.
While funding for tribal communities was expected in the COVID-19 relief bill, what made this funding an essential part of the administration’s efforts to build tribal sovereignty back better was the acknowledgment of tribes as sovereign governments alongside state governments.
This designation brought with it a new level of self-determination for our Indian nations – one that allowed us to make decisions on how to put those funds to their highest and best use in each tribal community. That’s essential, not just politically speaking but practically, because each tribe, like each state, has unique needs based on population, geography and capacity.
The administration followed this COVID-19 relief funding effort with tribal inclusion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill. The $12 billion directed into tribal communities by this measure is important. But even more significant for the future of the federal-tribal relationship is the acknowledgment that tribal infrastructure must be addressed after decades of underfunding.
In addition to funding decisions, policy decisions made day-to-day throughout the administration are being decided by a record number of Native Americans. With Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, we have the first Native American cabinet member in the history of the United States.
The administration has placed or nominated a number of Native American leaders to positions not traditionally held by tribal members – at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service, the Treasury Department, the Department of Defense, and other agencies. The reestablishment of the White House Council on Native American Affairs has created a venue to ensure that agency heads understand the need to include tribal governments in policy decisions that impact tribal lands and members.
This had led to a record number of consultations and listening sessions involving tribal government officials in Washington – on traditional topics such as healthcare, infrastructure, and agency strategic plans, but also on topics not traditionally covered, such as the impact of boarding schools on tribal communities and budget discussions directly with the Office of Management and Budget.
With the groundwork laid for the treatment of tribes as true sovereigns and partners, the question becomes how to move forward in ways that meaningfully build on this foundation of tribal sovereignty.
I propose that a strong foundation of sovereignty will allow for expansion of tribal self-determination in ways that highlight the capacity of tribes to not only bring solutions to current issues within tribal communities but also for our neighbors, as our community is doing in crafting innovative solutions to address the drought crisis in the Southwest.
The foundation was laid in the American Rescue Plan Act to reimagine how funding is allocated to tribal governments in a way that breaks down administrative silos. The acknowledgment that infrastructure in tribal communities has been systematically underfunded for decades could be cured by a program already supported in the president’s 2021 budget request to Congress – mandatory funding for leases in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
This program has the ability to address infrastructure needs throughout Indian Country and ensure that federal programs such as education, healthcare, social services and tribal courts are delivered out of modern, functioning facilities that meet the needs of tribal communities today, not in antiquated buildings that should have been razed decades ago.
Respect for tribal sovereignty ensures that tribes are part of the solution for the major issues of our time, such as climate change, drought, education and healthcare. The pandemic has shown that when tribes are allowed to lead – from a place of sovereignty and tribal-focused vision – we create solutions that benefit our communities and surrounding communities.
With an administration that understands this and wants tribes to be part of the effort to build our nation back better, we look forward to continuing our work to solve our common problems.