In my time as a tribal leader, I witnessed what happens when agencies fail to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes: Policies that fail to improve the lives of Indian people, and an adversarial relationship between tribes and the federal trustee. I also know that federal officials have a lot to learn from their tribal counterparts about effective governance.
The obligation for federal agencies to consult with tribal nations rises from the United States’ trust obligation to Indian tribes: The federal government must act in the best interests of Indian tribes and their citizens.
On November 6, 2000, President William Clinton acted to formalize this obligation by requiring all federal agencies to consult with tribal governments in the development of federal policies that have tribal implications. Nearly a decade later, in 2009, President Barrack Obama took one step further by requiring federal agencies to consult with tribal nations on how to implement this requirement.
President Joe Biden is working to build upon this progress. In his first week in office, recognizing the nation-to-nation relationship with tribal nations, he directed federal agencies to once again consult with tribal leaders and representatives on how to improve the consultation process.
Led by the Interior Department, officials from across the federal government are now engaged in consultation with tribal leaders and representatives on how to strengthen the consultation process and ensure federal decision-making reflects tribal input.
Here at Interior, our entire leadership team has participated in our virtual consultation sessions with hundreds of tribal leaders and representatives.
As far as headlines go, a federal “consultation on consultation” is hardly eye-catching. But tribal leaders know that this process matters. It is the cornerstone to sound action, decisions and policies that will advance our relationship with tribal communities.
Honoring our nation-to-nation relationship with tribes and upholding the trust and treaty responsibilities to them is paramount to fulfilling Interior’s mission.
Meaningful consultations ensure we center tribal voices as we address the health, economic, racial justice and climate crises — all of which disproportionately impact American Indians and Alaska Natives.
I am – and we are – listening and learning.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard that tribes often don’t receive adequate notice from federal agencies about consultation sessions and are sometimes left frustrated when different agencies host consultations at the same time. We’ve also learned that many tribes don’t have the time, staff or funding resources to travel to consultation sessions, and some tribal leaders feel that consultations are not accessible.
This process has also shown us that federal agencies often don’t demonstrate how tribal consultation has shaped or informed important policies, which has led to a belief that the consultation process is too often an exercise in “checking the box” before a decision is made.
Many tribal leaders and representatives also want federal agencies to work toward obtaining tribal concurrence or consent on certain issues before taking action.
As the Department of the Interior continues to receive this invaluable insight, we are diligently working to address these concerns and strengthen our relationship with tribal communities.
We are also making sure that tribal leaders understand the significant resources available to them through the new American Rescue Plan Act. This law makes a historic $31.2 billion investment in tribal communities, the largest single investment the United States has ever made in Indian Country. For us at Interior, this includes $900 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which will include direct aid payments to tribal governments and funding to address concerns related to housing and potable water, and $850 million for the Bureau of Indian Education, which will benefit BIE-funded schools and tribal colleges and universities.
This consultation process is not a one-time occurrence. It is part of a longer dialogue between the United States and tribal nations about how we can work together to improve the lives of people living in Indian Country. We are working to engage in an ongoing conversation and to learn from tribal leaders on how to advance that shared goal.
As a federal agency, we aren’t always going to be perfect partners; but, under President Biden and newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s leadership, we are going to continuously put in the work to become ever-better governing partners.
This consultation process is only the beginning.