National Congress of American Indians Jefferson Keel appears on stage with fellow tribal leaders after delivering the 17th annual State of Indian Nations at the Newseum in Washington, D.C, on February 11, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Native leaders deliver rebuke of Trump administration at State of Indian Nations

By Acee Agoyo

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With key officials from the Trump administration in the audience, the nation's largest and oldest inter-tribal advocacy group opened a historic week of events here with a stinging rebuke of the president and his policies.

From the recent shutdown of the federal government to the deaths of Indigenous children at the border, National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel left almost no stone unturned in the pointed speech, delivered just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. He characterized Donald Trump's treatment of tribal communities as one of neglect and lack of respect for the trust and treaty relationship.

“This administration’s priorities are elsewhere,” Keel said in the 17th annual State of Indian Nations address.

Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, was equally critical. Speaking from the stage after Keel, she blasted Trump for his "despicable" and all too frequent comments -- usually derogatory -- about Indigenous peoples, saying they posed a threat to the hopes and dreams of the first Americans, whose traditions have outlasted genocide, colonization and assimilation.

"In recent times, that hope has been compromised by a president who fails to acknowledge our nation's history and, in the process, he fails to live up to the trust obligations of the U.S. government," said Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. "His ignorant and tone-deaf statements illustrate that our voices have been voice or minimized in the national dialog because we have largely been without Native American representation."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: State of Indian Nations #SOIN2019

The assault was all the more remarkable due to presence of officials from the Trump administration at the event, held at the Newseum in the nation's capital. Jim Cason, the Associate Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior, went out of his way to greet Keel beforehand and to relay the desires of his boss, David Bernhardt, who has been nominated to lead the agency, to watch the address even though he wasn't able to be there in person.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to hold the position, was eager to reach out too. She jumped up at the first chance possible to introduce herself to Haaland prior to the start of the speech and listened intently throughout, frequently nodding and applauding at key moments.

But even as the two officials rushed out of the room at the conclusion of the event, there were no signs of tension between the administration and NCAI. Bernhardt, whose official title is Deputy Secretary of the Interior, and Sweeney are due to address tribal leaders Tuesday morning as the organization kicks off its winter session at a hotel only a couple of blocks from the White House.

Still, there was little doubt about the intensity of Keel's remarks. During the same address a year ago, he directed much of his concerns to Congress, calling on the legislative body to do a better job of including Indian Country in key legislation.

This time the message was vastly different. He described the 35-day shutdown of the federal government, which was instigated by the president right before Christmas, as a "pointless crisis" and one that represented a “gross dereliction of duty” to tribes and their citizens and expressed alarms that another one is on the way unless a deal is reached by Friday.

"America should not stand for another," Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, said of the potential threat.

NCAI on Vimeo: State of Indian Nations

In remarks aimed squarely at Interior, Keel singled out a slew of policy actions and developments as reckless. He urged Cason and Sweeney, as well as their boss back in the office, to put a halt to the “rushed and ill conceived” reorganization at the department, saying it was initiated without consulting tribes and has moved forward against their well-declared opposition.

Keel once again reiterated NCAI's support for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose homelands are in danger of being taken out of trust by the Trump administration, something that hasn't happened since the devastating termination era. Sweeney was the official who signed the decision, one which she previously said she "walked into" less than two months after joining Interior's leadership team last summer.

"This not only ignores the Indian Reorganization Act's mandate of tribal self-determination, it is patently and arbitrarily unfair," Keel said of the controversial "about face" toward the People of the First Light, whose ancestors welcomed some of the first European settlers to the Americas nearly 400 years ago.

Along those same lines, Keel called for the withdrawal of proposed regulations that tribes believe will make it all but impossible for them to restore the lands that were taken from them by the U.S. government. The rule, which remains under consideration at Interior, contains language that would allow the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take tribal lands out of trust, which the Trump administration has acknowledged it currently lacks the authority to do.

And he said the department must once again allow tribes in Sweeney's home state of Alaska to protect their territories by going through the land-into-trust process. A day before she was confirmed as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, the rug was pulled out from under the tribes by a higher-ranking official at Interior.

"The federal government's policy for tribal lands needs to put the interests of tribal nations first -- and no one else's," Keel asserted.

Keel also appeared to take a parting shot at former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who resigned under a cloud of investigations. He said whoever inherits the position -- Bernhardt awaits confirmation for it -- must do more than "pay lip service to tribal sovereignty."

Zinke, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, had often told tribes and anyone who would listen that "Sovereignty should mean something" but actions at Interior over the past two years seem to indicate otherwise, judging by Keel's critique.

Haaland's decision to provide a response from a Congressional perspective spoke volumes about the changed political climate as well. Though she is a freshman lawmaker, she has already secured a number of leadership positions in the U.S. House of Representatives, and she vowed to use them to hold the Trump administration accountable for its trust and treaty obligations.

“As vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, I’m committed to protecting our sacred lands, addressing climate change, and moving renewable energy forward, so we can pass our natural treasures down to our children,” Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said of her role on the legislative panel with jurisdiction over Indian issues.

Haaland will be putting her promise into practice as a member of the newly created House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, which holds its first hearing of the 116th Congress on Tuesday afternoon. The proceeding focuses on climate change, an issue that has been largely ignored by Trump and his Republican allies in Congress over the past decade.

And on Wednesday, she will be chairing her first hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands. She will continue the Democratic-led focus on climate change, a development that was welcomed by NCAI.

"Simply put, we can no longer afford need deniers. We need doers," President Keel said of climate change, which Trump once derided as a "hoax."

The State of Indian Nations marks the beginning of NCAI's winter session in D.C. Tribal leaders will be meeting at the Capitol Hilton for the remainder of the week, as well as paying visits to members of Congress.

Besides Associate Deputy Secretary Cason and Assistant Secretary Sweeney, other representatives of the Trump administration in attendance at the speech included Jeannie Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe who serves as the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans. The position, housed at the Department of Health and Human Services, had been vacant for two years.

Also in attendance was Michael Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni who has been placed in charge of the Indian Health Service by the Trump administration. The IHS director's position has been vacant since February 2015, during the Obama era.

"We've been without one for four years, which is outrageous," Keel said on Monday to applause.

The State of Indian Nation isn't the only time tribes will get face time with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, during the week. She and Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) who hails from the Ho-Chunk Nation, are hosting an open house on Monday afternoon at the U.S. Capitol. The session is yet another example of the ways the pair are working together to #IndigenizeCongress in ways never seen before.

NCAI Winter Session #ECWS19
The National Congress of American Indians kicks off its annual winter session at the Capitol Hilton in D.C. on Tuesday morning.

Three of the four tribal citizens who serve in Congress will be addressing the meeting, giving tribal leaders a historic opportunity to hear from Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, in one setting over the week. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is the only one who hasn't confirmed his attendance, though he has been invited and has spoken to NCAI in the past.

For Haaland and Cole, who are speaking back to back on Tuesday, the session marks their first speaking engagement since being selected as co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. House. Haaland is the first Native woman in that role while Cole is returning to the leadership position.

But the lawmakers aren't the only draws this week. Key members of the Trump administration -- including President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of the Interior -- will speak to tribal leaders, plus the White House has decided to host its first large-scale listening session with tribes, after letting prior initiatives like the White House Tribal Nations Conference and the Council on Native American Affairs go dormant.

Highlights: Tuesday, February 12
• Congressman Tom Cole (Oklahoma)
• Congresswoman Deb Haaland (New Mexico)
• Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan (Minnesota)
• Jeannie Hovland, Commissioner, Administration for Native Americans
• Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (California)
• Supreme Court Project Update
• Congressman Raúl Grijalva (Arizona)
• Congressman Will Hurd (Texas)

Also on Tuesday, the newly created House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States will hold its first hearing of the 116th Congress.

And in the evening, NCAI will host its 21st Annual NCAI Leadership Awards Banquet. There are five honorees this year.

Highlights: Wednesday, February 13
• Congresswoman Sharice Davids (Kansas)
• Indian Child Welfare Act Update
• Senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska)
• David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary, Department of the Interior
• Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior
• White House Tribal Government Listening Session (Note: Not open to general public or press)
"The White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and the White House Domestic Policy Council invites tribal leaders to a listening session with White House officials," NCAI said on its agenda. "These listening sessions will serve as a new platform for tribal leaders to directly engage with the White House; identify key issues effecting tribal nations; and provide a foundation for future collaboration."

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