What’s the right way for the White House to consult with tribal governments?
This is Trahant Reports.
Last week my colleague at Indian Country Today, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, reported on what was called “a horrible meeting,” a listening session between the White House and tribal leaders.
The meeting started off as an open dialogue, a back and forth conversation with White House staff, the Department of the Interior, and tribal leaders. But the White House officials said there was not enough time — and they would only listen to issues without a response.
A few tribal leaders did not like that – and left the room.
Bennett-Begaye reported that one of those who left the room was Oglala Sioux President Julian Bear Runner. His team asked a powerful question: How do you have a real consultation with a tribal nation, when the president is engaged with derogatory tweets and name-calling? This president, Bear Runner said, “has no education on what he’s talking about” with his tweets about the Battle of Little Bighorn or Pocahontas.
The Obama administration had raised tribal consultation to a new level. In addition to the formal process that was set out by the Office of Management and Budget, there was also an annual White House conference where tribes and the administration could exchange ideas about improving the delivery of service to Native people. Was that consultation perfect? Of course not. But the Trump administration essentially rejected any mechanism that began during the Obama era.
One idea that’s being debated now – especially by tribal leaders – is a formal, White House Council on Native Nations, similar in structure to the Council on Economics or National Security. The idea is for tribes to engage directly with cabinet members.
Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of the American Indians, apologized for one heated exchange during the listening session. Some tribal leaders blamed NCAI for the process itself. On Friday Keel said that NCAI “provided a room for White House staff to hold their listening session with tribal leaders after the NCAI Executive Council Winter Session because we believed it would be a first step in educating the White House about the federal-tribal relations.”
In other words, the process was a White House thing. About that bigger question: How do tribes engage this White House in meaningful discussions about tribal priorities? We are seeing a number of tests on that ranging from the potential construction of border walls on tribal lands to the continued development of energy or new pipelines in tribal communities or treaty lands.
And in such cases, so far, tribal opposition has mostly been ignored. That does not sound like consultation.
I am Mark Trahant.