Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt addresses the 74th annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 19, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'Ominous shadow' of President Trump looms over annual meeting of tribal leaders

'Ominous shadow' of President Trump looms over meeting of tribal leaders

By Kevin Abourezk

This week, the National Congress of American Indians — the largest intertribal organization in the United States — gathered for its annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Representatives from hundreds of tribes from across the lower 48 states and Alaska met to discuss issues such as tribal land acquisition, health, education and public safety. Delegates spent six days debating a proposed set of common issues they could agree upon and use to establish a platform for lobbying efforts in the coming year.

The uncertain intentions of the Donald Trump administration in regards to Indian Country, however, cast a long shadow over the conference as NCAI members struggled to decode the sparse federal Indian policies put forth since the president took office.

Many of those who spoke inside the ballroom of the Wisconsin Center and in the smaller meeting rooms around the convention center referred to the fear and trepidation felt by Indian leaders across America, though few actually mentioned the president’s name.

“I think there’s not been a time in my lifetime in which the challenge to our institutions and our Democratic faith has been more grave than today,” said Keith Harper, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Since taking office, Trump has said little about what direction he might steer federal Indian policy. Indeed, the most significant statement he’s made in that regard came during a June 28 tribal, state and local energy roundtable hosted at the White House.

During the event, the president talked about “infringements on tribal sovereignty,” including federal regulations that prevent tribes from developing their lands. He promised to help tribes more easily exploit their natural resources in order to improve their communities.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Donald Trump's Shadow Looms Over Tribal Meeting

“These untapped resources of wealth can help you build new schools, fix roads, improve your communities, and create jobs -- jobs like you’ve never seen before,” Trump said. “All you want is the freedom to use them, and that’s been the problem. It’s been very difficult, hasn’t it? It will be a lot easier now under the Trump administration.”

Since that meeting, however, Trump has said very little about federal Indian policy, and that’s left tribal leaders with the task of trying to interpret the actions and words of a handful of Trump appointees charged with overseeing tribal programs and developing Indian policy. Those actions and words so far have done little to allay tribal leaders’ fears.

In May, the newly appointed leader of the Department of the Interior suggested at a summit in Washington, D.C., that tribes might be best served by becoming corporations. That would reflect a model used in Alaska, in which Native lands were divided up and transferred to corporations.

"Is there an off-ramp? If tribes would have a choice of leaving Indian trust lands and becoming a corporation, tribes would take it," Secretary Ryan Zinke said at the National Tribal Energy Summit.

That statement set off alarms in Indian Country, which fears a return to the termination era, a period in which many tribes in the lower 48 states lost their federal recognition and had their assets transferred to corporations.

Zinke’s staff later sought to clarify his comments, saying the secretary’s statement wasn’t meant to propose any new policy.

But this week in Milwaukee, many tribal leaders brought up those comments again. Gary Besaw, the chairman of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, said the Trump administration doesn’t seem to understand the fundamental nature of its federal treaty trust responsibilities.

“We must stick together and be proactive and diligent in fighting these types of actions,” he said.

Tribal leaders aren’t alone in their consternation over the president’s thinking.

“Medicaid, lands, infrastructure, taxation are all issues with an ominous shadow hanging above us right now,” said Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico). “And if you’re not at the table, this government and this majority will move forward without you.”

Several sessions held during the NCAI annual conference focused on a new proposal first outlined by John Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe and “acting” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on October 4 and in a Dear Tribal Leader Letter to tribes.

Tahsuda said the Trump administration planned to propose changes to regulations regarding the land-into-trust process, changes that many tribal leaders fear will frustrate their efforts to acquire off-reservation lands.

Tribes typically wait years, and sometimes more than a decade, for decisions on their land-into-trust applications. They must navigate tricky local and even national political minefields as they seek to acquire properties that were lost, in many cases, to negative federal policies.

Among the changes that Tahsuda, who also spoke this week at NCAI, presented was the implementation of a “commutable distance” standard to decide whether tribes should be allowed acquire off-reservation lands. That standard essentially could prevent tribes from acquiring such lands if those lands were too far for tribal members to travel for jobs or other opportunities.

Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Nation in Washington, sought insight into the Trump administration’s thinking in regards to Indian policy from David Bernhardt, deputy Interior secretary, who spoke Thursday before NCAI’s membership.

“We’ve listened to hear his remarks about his vision for Indian Country in his inaugural address. We didn’t hear it there,” Sharp said. “We’ve tried to listen to any idea of his vision in the State of the Union address. We didn’t hear it there either.

“And so we’re trying to really figure out, What is the president’s vision for Indian Country?”

Bernhardt’s response cast little light.

“I have never talked to the president personally so I can’t say that.”

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