Native Nations need to weigh in on menu of opportunities
By Gary Davis
This past May I had the opportunity to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for the National Tribal Energy Summit in Washington, D.C. The summit, presented by the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs at the U.S. Department of Energy and coordinated by the National Conference of State Legislatures, focused on many of the same economic issues, that I work to improve each day in the tribal financial sector, including access to capital and capacity-building.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke joined the conference as a keynote speaker and left those in attendance with much to consider. While he was scheduled to speak about the key energy priorities of the federal government under the new administration, it was his comments on the federal trust responsibility to tribes that drew the most attention.
Secretary Zinke had this to say about sovereignty, the trust relationship and efficacy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA):
Sovereignty should mean something. We throw that word around a lot, but what does it actually mean? We need a discussion on that. As I look at the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, I think it’s time for a dialogue. As a steward of our Indian trust lands, what are we going to be 100 years from now? Is there an off-ramp? If I offered today that the tribe would have a choice of leaving the Indian Trust lands and becoming a 501(c)(3) Corporation, another entity, some tribes would take it. Quite frankly as BIA (the Bureau of Indian Affairs), I’m not sure in many ways we’re value-added. I’m not sure that we’re providing the services in education in a regulatory framework that promotes self-determination. Quite frankly, I’m not sure we are; and we need this dialogue.
His comments stirred the crowd and sent shockwaves through tribal communities, eliciting responses from every corner of Indian Country. Many likened his remarks to the post-World War II federal Indian policy of termination, where the government ended federal recognition of some tribes, dissolved their trusts, and divided up the land. Others saw parallels to Alaska Natives and formation of Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs) at the expense of sovereignty. After policy changes by former President Obama, some Alaska Native villages are beginning the land-into-trust process, accelerating the Land-Buyback Program for Tribal Nations that is restoring hundreds of thousands of acres to tribal communities.
Due in part to the detrimental effects of termination, President Richard Nixon ushered in a new era of federal Indian policy focused on self-determination and exercise of tribal sovereignty. Since his declaration in 1970, tribal nations have slowly solidified tribal government operations, built reservation economies and begun the difficult task of assuming greater political and fiscal responsibility over Indian Country. Secretary Zinke echoed many of those policies during his speech, saying, “We need to get out of your way so you can do it. Sovereignty is a word that has meaning. Consultation is not a last minute idea.” This is a refreshing perspective from a federal official.
However, aspects of tribal nations’ relationship with the federal government continue to create roadblocks to self-determination and the full exercise of tribal authority over tribal lands. Secretary Zinke referred to the federal track record in Indian Affairs as “underwhelming” and was quick to admit that, “if you go out west, the Department of Interior […], we’re not well liked in some places. How do we restore trust?”
The efficacy and trustworthiness of the BIA have long stood as impediments to fulfilling tribal self-determination and the exercise of sovereignty. Bureaucratic red tape consistently stymies resource development on tribal lands, something Secretary Zinke is personally familiar with given the struggles the Crow Nation has endured in developing the abundant resources on their tribal lands. Secretary Zinke lamented, “A lot of times the decisions that should be made instantly in the front line have to go all the way up through bureaucracy, bureaucracy, bureaucracy, all the way up to my desk on a decision that should be made instantly in the field.”
Projects on private lands receive approval in the matter of a few months; those same projects on tribal lands can take years (if they ever get approval at all) to navigate bureaucratic impediments imposed solely on tribal communities. He has a difficult path ahead to reverse a federal bureaucratic culture that has systematically hampered Native development for centuries.
Only a few months ago, the BIA, along with the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and Indian Health Service (IHS), was identified as “high-risk” by the Governmental Accountability Office for mismanagement, fraud, waste and abuse. In 2014, the BIE could not account for $1.7 million in federal funds earmarked to educate our future generations. These funds have been lost to bureaucratic fraud and incompetence. This is but a small drop in the bucket to the billions historically stolen and misused by BIA and other federal employees in abdication of trust responsibilities.
Tribal nations and the Native Americans they represent have endured considerable hardships over time, subjected to government policies intending to strip them of their lands, dignity and opportunity. It is only through our own ingenuity and perseverance that tribal communities are seeing improvements. Now we manage multi-billion dollar enterprises and provide critical social services like elder care, cultural preservation, education, hospitals and housing to our communities. Despite our progress, Indian Country is still plagued by poverty, substance abuse and a fear of moving forward.
While Secretary Zinke’s comments about creating an “off ramp” to the federal trust relationship may or not be the best solution to help tribal governments serve their communities, we absolutely need to have a conversation about how to promote tribal sovereignty, and more importantly come to unilateral agreement as to what tribal sovereignty means, so that it is the same definition understood by both Indian Country and the federal government. We need to eliminate harmful federal bureaucratic practices so that we can continue to evolve our relationship with the federal government into something that gives each tribe the flexibility to follow their own path to prosperity.
Secretary Zinke added that the federal government should be many things to tribes—helpful, advocates and partners. Tribes are positioned better now than ever to have a voice in our relationship with the federal government and the states that surround our communities.
He concluded by saying, “It is time to sit down at a table and discuss what we should be. The decision is going to be [Indian Country’s].”
As a young man, my grandfather taught me an important lesson about parity, that I would more fully understand later in life, by saying, “If you are not at the table, don’t be surprised if you end up on the menu.” It is time for our Native Nations to take a mutually equitable seat at the table in order to decide what the menu of opportunity is for Indian Country. Only then can our future truly be self-determined. ♦