President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians addresses the organization's executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

White House listening session turns messy as one tribe walks out in protest

'I was so offended and I was so outraged'
Oglala Sioux president clashes with National Congress of American Indians
By Acee Agoyo and Kevin Abourezk

• NCAI Winter Session Recaps: Day 1 | Day 2

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Trump administration's attempt to reset its troubled relationship with Indian Country got off to a rocky start here on Wednesday after one tribe walked out on what was billed as a historic meeting among sovereign nations.

The afternoon listening session was the first of its kind of the Trump era. But the way it was handled by the White House and by the National Congress of American Indians prompted the entire delegation of the Oglala Sioux Tribe to leave in protest.

Julian Bear Runner, the tribe's newly elected president, used the session -- which was closed to the press and to the public -- to discuss the challenges facing his people and his concerns about NCAI’s ability to address those challenges. In doing so, he questioned the nation's largest and oldest inter-tribal advocate organization's role as a liaison between Indian Country and the White House.

“Coming here I’ve been very disheartened that we have to pay a fee when I come from a nation that has a 90 percent poverty rate,” Bear Runner said in remarks that were streamed live on Facebook in defiance of the White House's attempt to limit who could witness the session.

Bear Runner said he was reconsidering his decision to have his tribe rejoin NCAI after being absent for many years, saying the organization seemed crippled by disputes among its members. He also criticized a proposal to establish a White House tribal advisory council.

“We already have that,” he said. “It’s called government-to-government negotiations, or government-to-government consultations, and those aren’t happening.”

White House listening session with William F. Crozer- Special Assistant to President Trump & Deputy Director at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Tara Sweeney- Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, NCAI President Jefferson Keel. President Bear Runner spoke the truth for our Oglala Lakota Oyaté✊🏾

Posted by Julian Bear Runner for Oglala Nation President on Wednesday, February 13, 2019

In an interview with Indianz.Com on Wednesday evening, Bear Runner said after he finished speaking during the meeting, NCAI President Jefferson Keel told him that if he didn’t want to be there he should leave.

According to multiple tribal leaders and others who were in the room, Keel told Bear Runner: "If you didn't think it was worth your time, maybe you shouldn't have come."

Those who witnessed the exchange immediately saw it as an affront to Bear Runner, a U.S. Army veteran who is the second-youngest person in his tribe's history to serve as president.

“I was so offended and I was so outraged by his reaction to my comment that I walked out and so did all my tribal council people,” Bear Runner said. “I felt like he had no regard for who I am and the position I hold.”

In the interview, Bear Runner said several NCAI board members and tribal leaders talked to him after the exchange and apologized for Keel’s comment, but he said he hasn’t heard from Keel himself. He said he doesn’t plan to ask for an apology from Keel, who is an Army veteran as well.

He also said he planned to return home to the Pine Ridge Reservation on Thursday, earlier than he had originally planned.

“I had a lot of hope, and I had a lot of faith in coming to NCAI as an entity to help to take on our challenges in the face of the United States government,” he said. “I have less there, with my faith and my belief in NCAI thrown at me.”

Following the slight and before a reception held at the National Museum of the American Indian in the evening, NCAI board members continued to talk among themselves about the dust-up. Several remained intent on finding a way to ease the tensions that surfaced in the afternoon, especially after a second NCAI executive made comments following Bear Runner's departure that were again seen as disrespectful toward other leaders in the room.

But other tribal leaders and people who attended the White House session pointed out multiple problems with it from the start, saying the way it was handled underscores the lack of a concrete relationship between tribes and President Donald Trump, whose comments about the first Americans are typically doled out in offensive fashion on Twitter or in unexpected and seemingly inappropriate settings.

The session was run by two mid-level officials from the White House "who looked like kids," one attendee said, which was seen as a sign of their lack of experience. One of those officials works at the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which deals with tribal and state governments, but he was assigned to his position barely five months ago, after finishing law school only six years prior.

Attendees were also told they couldn't leave the conference room once they entered, a requirement seen as oppressive for a session that was scheduled to run for 3 and 1/2 hours after lunch. Since neither of the two White House officials work at a level requiring a security presence, the request was immediately ignored and treated as another sign of the lack of thought that went into what had been billed as a historic gathering.

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman in that position at the Department of the Interior, and President Keel, who serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation, were also seated at the table with the White House officials in a conference room at the Capitol Hilton, which was the same hotel where NCAI held its winter meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. Their presence led some attendees to believe they were playing a key role in running the session.

But Indian Country's norms and traditions apparently weren't taken into account by the White House. Sensing something was missing, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe insisted on opening the listening session with a prayer song, multiple attendees told Indianz.Com.

That's when other disconnects became apparent. The Cheyenne River song was strong enough that it could be heard outside of the closed room but since no one was aware that it was going to happen, some more well-versed federal employees who were also at the Hilton for tribal meetings were asked to check in to make sure the White House officials hadn't lost control of their own gathering.

Frazier followed up the song with remarks about his own frustrations with the Trump administration, attendees said. He then left the room because he had previously scheduled business to attend to in the nation's capital, two sources told Indianz.Com.

Bear Runner immediately spoke afterward, bringing up his tribe's opposition to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines that Trump himself has taken credit for approving. He also criticized NCAI's annual dues structure and the organization's abilities.

Together the two Great Plains leaders took up about the first 30 minutes of the session, which prompted another NCAI official to make a remark that seemed to diminish their contributions by questioning the length of their speeches. Though the remark, like President Keel's, was also seen as an affront, "he had to do something to neutralize the room," another tribal leader who was there said of this official's attempt to get the session back on track by establishing some ground rules.

But NCAI board members who knew that these remarks were troublesome quickly engaged in "damage control" at the session and throughout the afternoon, this same tribal leader said. A second person who also was in the room confirmed to Indianz.Com the nature of the discussion that were taking place up until the reception in the evening.

Had the meeting occurred earlier in the Trump era instead of two years into the administration, it might have turned out differently. At one point, two tribal citizens were working on Indian and related issues for the president but one was moved to a different government position outside of the White House a year ago before he left the administration altogether. The second has since taken a position for Vice President Mike Pence and no longer works directly with tribal governments.

Tribal leaders in fact have long been pushing for such a meeting, citing the progress they had seen during the Obama era, when the White House Tribal Nations Conference took place like clockwork every year. The White House Council on Native American Affairs also was established during this time to ensure the federal government engages in the types of "meaningful consultation" that Bear Runner said has gone missing with Trump in office.

But that council has since gone "dormant," a D.C. expert in Indian law and policy said last month, emphasizing that "dormant" was the euphemism someone from the White House used in discussing the initiative.

President Keel himself has taken the Trump team to task for its disjointed dealings with Indian Country. “This administration’s priorities are elsewhere,” he said during the 17th annual State of Indian Nations on Monday.

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