- By Levi Rickert
Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., told the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security in February 2020 that the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was “giving little more than lip service to consultation.”
Norris described how Tohono O’odham’s ancestral land was bulldozed to make room for the wall at the southern border of the United States that would have run through Arizona’s second largest Indian reservation.
“(The Department of Homeland Security) has made clear that it will not actually consider any alternative type of border security measures or technology other than construction of a border wall, nor will it slow down its efforts to construct the wall to consider whether there are alternatives or mitigation measures,” Norris testified.
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Almost two years and one presidency later, things have changed when it comes to tribal consultation between the federal government and the 574 federally recognized tribes.
This past Thursday marked the first anniversary of President Joe Biden’s inauguration. Within a week, Biden signed a Presidential Memorandum that reaffirms tribal sovereignty through tribal consultation.
In an exclusive interview with Native News Online on Wednesday, Libby Washburn (Chickasaw), Special Assistant to the President at the White House, said reforming the relationship with tribal governments was at the top of the list for the Biden-Harris administration.
“A year ago, the President issued a memorandum on tribal consultation, and strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship. And immediately, the entire federal government started changing the way they interacted with tribes and started reaching out, consulting,” Washburn said. “Then we had more than 80 agencies create action plans, with more than half of them (having) never consulted with tribes before. So, this really has a major impact throughout the entire federal government and every aspect of tribal governments and tribal ways of life.”
Beyond building better tribal relationships through consultation, the administration has fulfilled campaign promises in the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations made to Indian Country during the 2020 presidential election. This includes reinstating the White House tribal nations conference that took place every year during the Obama-Biden administration. This administration elevated the conference to a summit because of the sovereign relationship between tribal nations and the federal government.
The Biden administration nominated and appointed more Native Americans to senior positions within the federal government than any other presidential administration in history. The most significant was when Biden’s nomination of then Rep. Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to be the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. told Native News Online this week that President Biden has prioritized Indian Country in his first year, including the first Native American cabinet member, Secretary Deb Haaland, who joined First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, on a trip to the Cherokee Nation Reservation late last year.
“The reinstitution of the White House Tribal Nations Summit carried significant weight, and the Biden-Harris administration continues to champion tribal priorities like language preservation, broadband connectivity and violence against Native women,” Hoskin said. “Additionally, tribal governments have been included in the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which have enabled us to expand our access to quality health care, better protect our most vulnerable citizens and make long-term infrastructure investments across our reservation in northeast Oklahoma.”
Hoskins was referring to the $32 billion in the American Rescue Plan and the $20 billion earmarked for Indian Country to help rebuild tribal economies devastated by COVID-19.
President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal delivers more than $13 billion in direct investments in Tribal communities targeting transportation, water, sanitation, energy, environmental restoration, telecommunications and climate resilience. This includes a $2 billion investment in broadband in Tribal communities.
Yet even with the commitment to tribal nations, the Biden-Harris administration has faced criticism from Indian Country on the slow pace shown on environmental issues, such as the building of the Dakota Access pipeline and Enbridge’s Line 3, as well as other oil and gas pipelines.
“Indigenous Peoples possess particular expertise and values centered on protecting relationships with the environment that is so desperately needed to combat climate change – as well as to restore relationships among all living things,” says Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), chief executive and attorney. “The Biden-Harris administration must act faster, however, to protect our ecosystem and implement real change that is engrained in how the government does business so that our efforts now will continue to be protective of our ecosystem and relationships, regardless of who sits as “president.”
The first year of any president’s administration does not typically dictate how any president will ultimately be viewed in history.
While Biden’s commitment to Indian Country is commendable, there still is a lot of work to be done when weighed against centuries of policies that have worked against Native Americans.
We hope the Biden-Harris administration gets it right when it comes to the environment, protection of the grey wolf and the release of Leonard Peltier.
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