After years of bungling the affairs of Indian tribes — including federal government mismanagement of tribal funds and lands that resulted in dozens of lawsuits and a settlement of more than $1 billion to tribes last year — President Obama today signed an executive order creating a White House Council on Native American Affairs.
“As we work together to forge a brighter future for all Americans, we cannot ignore a history of mistreatment and destructive policies that have hurt tribal communities,” Obama stated. “This order establishes a national policy to ensure that the Federal Government engages in a true and lasting government-to-government relationship with federally recognized tribes in a more coordinated and effective manner, including by better carrying out its trust responsibilities.”
The Interior secretary will be head of the council, which will include the heads of all other cabinet departments or a designated proxy. Funding will come from the Interior Department’s budget and outreach to tribes will go through the White House.
It will meet just three times a year. The duties of the council are largely window-dressing, from making policy recommendations to the president to helping plan his annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell plans to elaborate on the council at the closing session of the National Congress of American Indians Mid Year Conference tomorrow in Reno, Nev.
The co-chairwoman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, which has spent much of the 113th Congress going after the Washington Redskins’ owner to change the team’s name, commended Obama “for recognizing the critical importance of a coordinated federal approach to engaging with tribal nations and Native Americans.”
“This special recognition of tribal sovereignty by the White House will give Indian issues a higher profile and will hopefully put greater focus on providing better services and getting results for Indian families,” said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.). “At a time when sequestration is inflicting devastating harm throughout Indian Country, this Council will be have an immediate opportunity to engage tribal leaders and stakeholders to responsibly meet federal trust obligations.”
McCollum is not a Native American. The only two tribal members in Congress right now are both Oklahoma Republicans: Chicksaw Nation member and caucus co-chairman Tom Cole and Cherokee Nation member Markwayne Mullin. Neither had any immediate comment on Obama’s new council.
The California Nations Indian Gaming Association said they asked the president to form the council and expressed “appreciation” to Obama for his executive order. “President Obama declared it the policy of the United States to recognize the inherent sovereignty of our Indian nations and tribes, to promote Indian sovereignty and tribal self-government, and to respect treaty rights,” the group said in a statement.
Obama may be trying to soothe the tribes before their next hit comes from his administration.
In Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, the Supreme Court last summer found in a 5-4 decision that the administration had to make good on its contracts with Indian tribes for education and other services. The administration said it didn’t have the money to reimburse the tribes, so they sued the government for breach of contract. The tribes won.
In an April Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) blasted the Obama administration for trying to evade those payments by altering the contracts in the FY 2014 budget.
“Must I remind the Obama administration that self-determination contracts are the core of our nation’s federal trust relationship with Indian tribes. Through thousands of contracts throughout the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, tribes operate the federal programs promised to Indians for the removal of their lands,” Murkowski said.
“Indian tribes fought and won a huge victory in the Supreme Court’s Ramah decision,” she continued. “Rather than delivering justice to tribes in the adequate payment of contract support costs for the operation of Indian programs, the administration has decided to forgo justice, and hand the issue over to Congress to address in the appropriations process – a decision that dramatically alters the federal Indian Self Determination Statute without consultation of the tribes, nor this authorizing committee.”
The previous year, Murkowski and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) went after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for refusing to follow through on mandated reporting requirements and release labor statistics documenting the employment situation in Indian country.
With the Interior Department website bragging about long-term economic development from stimulus investments in the Indian nations, there was no way to measure how funds have truly impacted the communities — where, as Congress heard from the department in 2010, unemployment may reach as high as 80 percent.
But things could get worse with the implementation of ObamaCare, which narrows the definition of who qualifies as an Indian and can continue to receive care from Indian health facilities without paying the $695 IRS fine or buying health insurance.
Under ObamaCare, an Indian must be able to document his or her membership in one of the 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. However, about 100 more tribes are recognized by states but not the federal government. Additionally, many Native Americans no longer live on reservations, nullifying membership according to some tribal rules, and other myriad rules tribe-by-tribe could also affect the ability of a person of Indian descent to get the kind of documentation ObamaCare requires.
The Associated Press found last month that up to 480,000 Native Americans who currently receive care through the Indian Health Service could be penalized under ObamaCare.
Last week Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) introduced the Nevada Native Nations Lands Act, which transfers Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands to seven tribes for purposes ranging from jurisdictional resolution to economic development.
“These are all cases where local control and economic self-determination are preferable to Washington-centric management by a federal agency,” said Amodei. “These lands will enable the tribes to chart brighter futures for their communities and to better preserve their cultural heritage.”