President Donald Trump meets with tribal, state and local leaders at the White House on June 28, 2017. Photo: White House

President Trump promises 'freedom' for tribes seeking to exploit their resources

President Donald Trump blamed the federal government for hindering prosperity in Indian Country in his first official event with tribal leaders.

In remarks at the White House on Wednesday, Trump said tribes stand to gain financially by developing their natural resources. His administration will make it "easier" for them to do just that, he promised.

"All you want is the freedom to use them, and that’s been the problem. It’s been very difficult, hasn’t it?" the president said with Kevin Frost from the Southern Ute Tribe at his side. "It will be a lot easier now under the Trump administration."

While Trump didn't offer specifics about his plans, tribes have long complained about lengthy waits for permits, leases and other approvals for projects in their communities. Some of them lose out on million of dollars in economic opportunities due to lack of expertise at agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But efforts to improve the situation have largely failed. While Congress has tried to make it easier for tribes to develop their resources, the solutions that have come from Washington have not been embraced in Indian Country because they end up making matters more complicated.

That's why leaders some want dramatic and even controversial changes. Frost, who serves on the Southern Ute council, is calling for the elimination of federal reviews altogether for projects on tribal land.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: President Donald Trump With Tribal Leaders at Energy Roundtable

"The public comment process slows down the environmental assessment process and requires federal resources to respond to public comments,” Frost told fellow tribal leaders at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians earlier this month.

"This also interferes with the tribe's rights and ability as a sovereign to make land use decisions based on a tribe's determination of what is best for their people," Frost added.

Frost said he's already told the Trump team about his ideas, which could apply to energy as well as infrastructure development. The president in fact echoed similar concerns at the roundtable on Wednesday.

"These infringements on tribal sovereignty are deeply unfair to Native Americans and Native American communities who are being denied access to the energy and wealth that they have on their own lands," Trump said.

Republican allies in Congress also have been listening. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in one of its first actions this year, approved S.245, Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments, in hopes of making incremental reforms sought by tribes.

But bigger items like a tribal exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act are near political impossibilities. Democrats, environmental groups and tribal activists will oppose changes that limit their ability to comment on developments on reservations.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: President Donald Trump and Tribal Leaders at Energy Roundtable

And top officials at the Department of the Interior remain non-committal on less controversial changes to their policies and procedures. Secretary Ryan Zinke has refused to say whether he will try to streamline the land-into-trust process, which is notorious for years- and even decades-long waits.

"I don't have all the answers," Zinke told tribal leaders during his first appearance before NCAI on June 13.

Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at the department, also remained tight-lipped when asked repeatedly about the issue during the NCAI meeting. He refused to say whether the new administration is committed to helping tribes restore their homelands, lands that they lost due to negative federal policies.

“We want to know the process is timely," said Ron Allen, the longtime chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe and the treasurer of NCAI.

"The perception is that it's going to get bottle-necked" with the new administration, he added.

Zinke did not participate in the roundtable on Wednesday, which also included state and local leaders. Secretary Rick Perry of the Department of Energy was there and sat next to Chairman Mark Fox of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Perry's agency does not play as much of a role in reviewing tribal projects as Interior.

Administrator Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency attended and sat next to Frost . The EPA plays more of a significant role in Indian Country than the Energy Department by reviewing treatment as state applications and overseeing other tribal projects.

There wasn't enough space at the table for all of the tribal leaders during the meeting. Governor Bill Anoatubby of the Chickasaw Nation and Chairman Herman Honanie of the Hopi Tribe were among those who could be seen sitting on chairs behind the others.

Despite the roundtable's focus on energy, President Trump veered from the subject to talk about controversial efforts to reform the nation's health care system. He spent about half of his time on the Republican "Better Care" bill, which would reduce revenues to the Indian Health Service and to facilities in Indian Country that depend on Medicaid and Medicare.

"So we have a plan that, if we get it approved -- it's very tough," Trump said. "Every state is different, every senator is different."

Republican leaders have withdrawn from plans to put their version of H.R.1628, the American Health Care Act, to a final vote this week due to opposition from members of their own party.

The White House said the following tribal leaders participated in the energy roundtable:
• Chairman Alvin "AJ" Not Afraid, Crow Tribe
• Chairman Luke Duncan, Ute Tribe
• Councilman Kevin Frost, Southern Ute Tribe
• Gov. Bill Anoatubby, Chickasaw Nation
• Speaker LoRenzo Bates, Navajo Nation Council
• Chairman Herman Honanie, Hopi Tribe
• Chairman Mark Fox, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation
• Chief Gary Batton, Choctaw Nation
• Chairman Jo Anne Battise, Alabama-Coushatta Tribe
• Chairman Aaron Payment, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

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