Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye at consultation stating his opposition to the proposed reorganization of the BIA.
Published June 28, 2018
ALBUQUERQUE — The proposed reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and elimination of a Navajo region violate tribal sovereignty and the Treaty of 1868, President Russell Begaye said during a tribal consultation Monday in Albuquerque.
More than 100 people representing about 20 tribal nations attended the four-hour consultation, which was the third of eight held at locations throughout Indian Country this summer. The consultations come after the BIA announced a plan—that so far has been drafted without tribal input—to realign all federal agencies into the same 13 regions, creating “unified boundaries” with the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other agencies.
The plan also calls for the elimination of the Navajo region and reassignment of its regional director. Under the proposed reorganization, the Navajo Nation would be split into two regions and combined with other tribes and pueblos.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the current plan that tries to break up the Navajo region,” President Begaye said during the consultation, chaired by John Tahsuda, acting principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. “The proposal is chaotic and instead of simplifying operations, it will create bottlenecks that will not only negatively impact the Navajo Nation but other tribes that are forced into our region. Simply put, this proposal is not progressive and does not move us into the future.”
The Treaty of 1868 explicitly requires that the BIA assign a federal representative to the Navajo region, President Begaye said. It also requires that “the agent for the Navajos shall make his home at the agency building; that he shall reside among them and shall keep an office open at all times for the purpose of prompt and diligent inquiry.”
President Begaye reminded Tahsuda that any reorganization of the BIA directors must only advance Indian interests and the Interior Department’s core responsibilities of addressing tribal needs, managing Indian trust assets and increase economic opportunities. He condemned any proposals that favor states or energy industry over tribes.
“The federal government has already proven that it will listen to states, which do not have the best interest of tribes,” President Begaye said. “We as tribes should be afforded the same courtesy.”
President Begaye first spoke about the proposed reorganization in June 2017 and made several recommendations to the BIA, he said Monday. None of those recommendations were incorporated into the proposal.
“Last year, I thought this was an opportunity to modernize the BIA and better serve our Navajo people,” he said. “A year ago, I was optimistic. I thought we could use this opportunity to modernize the way the BIA handles these issues.”
One recommendation was that the BIA hold a tribal consultation on the Navajo Nation, President Begaye said. He reiterated that request Monday.
President Begaye also opposed the Interior Department’s “take it or leave it” approach to reorganization. Secretary Ryan Zinke has said Indian Country can decide for itself whether it wants to participate in the reorganization.
That approach leaves no room for negotiation, President Begaye said. By failing to engage in meaningful consultation with tribes, the Interior Department is missing an opportunity to optimize operations and truly benefit Native people.
“This could be an opportunity to bring the old BIA into the 21st century,” President Begaye said. “It could be an opportunity to not only streamline our work with the BIA but also our work with the BLM and BOR. Unfortunately, by not listening to tribes, our federal government is missing an opportunity to truly engage with tribes.”