Indigenous Wire Q&A: ‘Mayor Pete’ Buttigieg builds up tribal infrastructure plans
Exclusive interview with Biden administration's Transportation Secretary on over $13 billion in funding for Native American tribes in bipartisan infrastructure law.
WASHINGTON – If you feel like the Biden administration suffered some messaging failures during its first year, on issues large and small, you’re certainly not alone. But on multibillion-dollar topics facing Indian Country, several top officials are increasingly making their voices heard.
One of those who’s using the bullhorn on Native matters, even while admitting that he has more to learn about Native America, is Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Affectionately known by many of his fans as “Mayor Pete” during and after his run for president in 2020, Buttigieg recently sat down for a phone interview with Indigenous Wire. His well-known charm and ability to connect were immediately apparent, and it’s easy to sense why President Joe Biden felt so comfortable with this Cabinet pick, even given the veteran of the Navy Reserve’s lack of previous federal leadership experience.
The former mayor of South Bend, Ind. took the opportunity to discuss some of the weighty Indian Country inclusions within the bipartisan infrastructure deal, signed into law by Biden in November. The law includes over $13 billion in infrastructure dollars for tribes and Native citizens, with at least $4 billion of that budgeted at Buttigieg's Transportation Department. Some Native advocacy organizations say the ultimate infrastructure dollars that will go to tribes as a result of the law amount to nearly $15 billion.
Securing the much-needed money was a challenge of its own for Native advocates and tribal leaders, but even more difficult work is now afoot, as they try to ensure that it’s distributed appropriately, fairly and in a way that makes real, lasting impacts.
Buttigieg, 39, says he’s up to the task. "This is going to be a very demanding process, and we recognize that," he told Indigenous Wire. "I think the most important thing is to make sure that we have the engagement and consultation from the very beginning.”
He also shared some of his connections with tribes, both before and during his service in the Biden administration, and he talked about why the Native vote will be crucial in 2022 and beyond.
Our exclusive interview follows.
How familiar were you personally with Indian Country before becoming Transportation Secretary? And in this position, have you been forced to become more familiar with tribes, tribal sovereignty and tribal consultation?
There's no question that there's been a huge increase in my personal engagement and attention on tribal matters since getting this job, although I should say that I got introduced to a lot of tribal issues as mayor of South Bend. We were very proud that the first time federally-recognized Indian Country came to the state of Indiana, it was within the city limits of our community. Working with the Pokagon Band, the Potawatomi Indians and getting to know them as they went through what was the end of really a decades-long process of getting land into trust and getting it federally recognized was a major education for me in terms of both issues of tribal sovereignty and establishing the right kind of government-to-government relationship — and in terms of just seeing the process and the demands placed on tribes as they were seeking the recognition and the benefits that were owed them. So I carried that experience with me, one of the probably less-known and smaller of the 574 tribes, as I came to this role where I'm engaging with everybody from tribes that very few people have heard of, to some of the biggest and most recognizable tribal governments in the U.S. (Editor’s note: the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians was federally recognized in 1994, and the tribe is located in southwestern Michigan and northeastern Indiana.)
Did you expect as much tribal engagement as is needed, given the legal trust relationship between the U.S. and tribes, when you entered President Biden’s Cabinet?
I knew it would be important, but I was not certain how we were going to operationalize it. And so seeing the White House's commitment that really comes directly from the president to build up things like tribal consultation [and] to reestablish the White House Tribal Nations Summit, to make sure that offices like our own office in our department are engaging with our counterparts and establishing that White House Council on Native American Affairs. All of that, I think, demonstrated the extent of the commitment to this work. And that was very encouraging as somebody who was curious [about] how we could make good on the very high expectation that I think Indian Country had for this administration from day one.
You already have at least one major Native American fan within the administration. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland endorsed you for president before you both ended up endorsing President Biden. Did you know that?
That's right (laughs). Yeah, no, one of the best parts of the campaign was engaging tribal leaders. Obviously, we were proud to have his support and that of others. So it's wonderful to be reconnected wearing different hats.
The bipartisan infrastructure law contains major dollars for Indian Country roads, bridges and transportation safety. How do you plan to implement this money across the 574 federally-recognized tribes in an equitable manner? Is this going to be a difficult process?
Absolutely. This is going to be a very demanding process, and we recognize that. I think the most important thing is to make sure that we have the engagement and consultation from the very beginning. So in addition to the funding that's created by this law, it also establishes an Office of Tribal Government Affairs. It elevates the leadership of tribal government affairs in our department to the rank of assistant secretary and helps to formalize some of what we've been working on to increase our capacity for these engagements. I think that's important because, when you look at the sums of money that are involved, $3 billion for the tribal transportation programs through federal highways, a billion dollars for specifically bridges, transit projects, technical assistance, safety and so much more, we have to do it in a way that recognizes there won't be a one-size-fits-all solution.
You have some tribes that have full-time staff for engaging the federal government and others that might be almost completely new to the process of applying for some of the funds that could be available here. So we've got to meet people where they are, and I've sought to do that even in my own travels. For example, we were able to visit tribal leaders from the Gila River Indian Community and the Ak-Chin Community in Arizona to the engagement that we've had under the umbrella of the White House. I think those are going to be very important to make sure that these programs are a success.
There's a big divergence between the haves and have nots in Indian Country, and it sounds like you understand the difficulties with that. The Treasury Department, in distributing some of its tribal pandemic funds, has received backlash from researchers, tribes, politicians and legislators about the way it handled its distributions to tribes through both the CARES Act and then the American Rescue Plan Act. To make sure that you don't end up in a place where you're getting a lot of criticism, is the Office of Tribal Government Affairs going to be of utmost importance at the Department of Transportation? Who's going to take the ultimate responsibility for making sure, when we look back on the spending of this money, that you've done a good job?
Certainly a lot of this work will be housed in the Office of Tribal Government Affairs. But I think this also needs to be a whole-of-government effort, an administration-wide effort, so that when we have lessons learned from past engagements, even if they come from a totally different agency, that we're applying those to our work. Another thing that's been really helpful is the close relationship we've built with the Department of the Interior. In fact, Secretary Deb Haaland and I recently signed an MOU for our collaboration on a number of areas of overlap. But beyond that specific work, which largely had to do with federal lands, just having a relationship, that helps make sure that knowledge that exists anywhere in the administration can be helpful for us getting this right. I think that's going to be very important.
Do you like Secretary Haaland? Do you have a good personal relationship with her?
Oh, yeah. I've been a fan of hers since she was in the House and I was mayor. And I have a lot of family attachment to New Mexico and had followed her career for some time. So being able to be a colleague with her in the Cabinet is a real treat. And, of course, she's really helped to be, I think, a very important presence and to educate her peers in many ways, from her perspective as Interior Secretary, but also more broadly given her historic role in the administration.
When can we expect the tribal transportation infrastructure funding to start making a real impact? Will we see stuff happening in 2022?
So I think some parts of it will move sooner than others. There are over a hundred tribes who already have funding agreements with the Federal Highway Administration. And that creates some existing pipelines to get the dollars out there. But again, I'm thinking of all 574 tribes. And I'm thinking of all of the dozens of programs that are being created, some of which are entirely new. Look, we know that some of the bigger highway or bridge or safety or internet projects will take some time to stand up. But we also believe that we need to act with urgency to accelerate work that has often been talked about for a long time. And when you look at some of the plans that tribal governments have put together, they already have a long, thoroughly-vetted list of projects or ideas that they believe are most important, and they've already worked to prioritize. Then we should use that as an opportunity to accelerate the process on our end.
With Sen. Murkowski playing a major role in securing some of the tribal funding in the bipartisan infrastructure deal, are you prepared to hear from Alaska legislators as they keep track of your progress? As you know, Alaska Natives have a lot of needs, but there can sometimes be issues between lower 48 tribes and Alaska tribes, as we saw during CARES Act distributions. I would suspect Sen. Murkowski would be someone who might be contacting you a lot to make sure that her tribes up in Alaska aren't forgotten.
I'm sure I'll be hearing a lot from the Alaska delegation. And of course, we welcome any member of the House or Senate sticking up for the needs of their state. But again, this is part of what I mean when I say that it can't be one size fits all. Alaskan Native communities certainly have distinctive needs and opportunities. But whether we're talking about the Navajo Nation or whether we're talking about a tribe whose land and trust sits within the confines of a small Midwestern urban area, like my hometown, we've got to make sure that we're meeting everybody where they are.
How well do you think the Department of Transportation has been doing on engagement and consultation with tribes? And how do you want to be doing it better?
I'm really encouraged by the work so far. Arlando Teller, our deputy assistant secretary leading on this, has been constantly engaging with tribes and with his counterparts. I've been able to get out directly and have these engagements as well, but the proof will be in the results. We're very focused on that in terms of making sure that the tribal citizens see these billions of dollars worth of improvements in their daily lives in the years ahead.
When you mention results, you know results sometimes can lead to votes. Vice President Kamala Harris recently noted that she believes the Native American vote and making sure that Natives have appropriate access to the polls will be very important in the upcoming elections in 2022 and 2024. Do you agree that the Native American vote is very important?
Yeah, that's unquestionably true. I first saw this in my very first job out of college, which was campaign work in 2004 in Arizona. I saw the importance and the vulnerability of Native voters back then, and I know that that continues to be an issue and one that we have a moral responsibility to secure and support that right to vote.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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