Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye meets with regional and national leaders of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Pictured, from left, are John Tahsuda, acting principal deputy assistant secretary of the BIA; President Begaye; BIA Public Affairs Director Nedra Darling; and Jim James, deputy bureau director of field operations for the BIA’s Albuquerque office.
Published May 2, 2018
ALBUQUERQUE — Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye last week reaffirmed the Navajo Nation’s opposition to the proposed Bureau of Indian affairs reorganization that so far has been designed without tribal input.
During meetings in Albuquerque, President Begaye told John Tahsuda, acting principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, that tribes must be consulted before the Interior Department makes changes that directly affect them. The proposed reorganization, which comes in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order demanding a massive overhaul of the federal bureaucracy, calls for realignment of all federal agencies into the same 13 regions.
That means the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) could be reorganized to reflect “unified boundaries” with other federal agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management. The Interior Department’s initial proposal, which was drafted in response to pushback from state governors, splits the Navajo Nation into two regions and combines Navajo communities with many other tribes and pueblos in those regions.
During a listening session Wednesday with Tahsuda and Jim James, deputy bureau director of field operations at the BIA’s Albuquerque office, Navajo leaders voiced strong opposition to any plan that would divide the Navajo Nation into smaller regions.
“This is a critical time for Navajo,” President Begaye said. “We already know that combining the Navajo Nation with smaller tribes with different needs doesn’t work. Splitting Navajo into different regions doesn’t work. Any reorganization that cuts the Navajo Nation into sections will create unnecessary inefficiencies and is going to be a major setback.”
Tahsuda and James also attended the Thursday meeting of the Coalition of Large Tribes (COLT), where they fielded similar questions and complaints from member tribes about the proposed reorganization. The main goal of the reorganization, Tahsuda said, is to “determine how we can serve tribal communities better.”
The Interior Department juggles 40 different regions, Tahsuda said. By redrawing regional boundaries, the department hopes to increase communication and streamline service delivery.
One of the biggest departments in the federal government, the Interior Department has never gone through a “top-to-bottom reorganization,” Tahsuda said. Such an undertaking will take years, stretching beyond the Trump Administration.
The Interior Department plans to host a series of eight consultations in the coming months, in locations across Indian Country. Dates and locations will be announced in forthcoming letters to tribal leaders.
“We want to have vigorous conversations,” Tahsuda said. “If the consensus at the end of the day is that this isn’t going to work for Indian Country, we’re not going to force it on you.”
Tribal leaders criticized the BIA for moving forward on proposed reorganization, including maps, without first seeking input. They also condemned any plan that favors states over tribal nations.
“Stop putting states in the same conversation with tribes,” President Begaye said. “Stop giving federal rights to the states that were formed after our Treaty of 1868. If you’re moving forward with this reorganization, tribes must be involved. What’s best for the Department of the Interior is not necessarily best for Indian Country.”
Last week’s meetings came on the heels of the BIA’s announcement that Sharon Pinto, director of the Navajo Regional Office, was reassigned. President Begaye and Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates jointly responded to the announcement in an April 18 letter to Tahsuda that calls for “immediate, true and direct consultation” between tribes and the federal government.
Included with the letter are two resolutions the Council passed the same day: one opposing the reorganization of the BIA without tribal input, and the other opposing Pinto’s reassignment.
“Until this proper consultation occurs, the Navajo Nation opposes any proposed reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” the letter states.
The Interior Department’s plan calls for greater efficiency in service delivery—and a workforce reduction of 4,000 jobs nationwide.
Vice President Jonathan Nez said the Interior Department’s failure to work with tribes is especially troubling as the Navajo Nation prepares to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of 1868. The treaty recognized Navajo as a sovereign nation and guaranteed government-to-government relationships that the Interior Department must respect.
“Our voice must be heard,” Vice President Nez said. “We’re not just asking to be consulted, but to be at the table when these discussions begin.”