National Congress of American Indians plays hardball with federal officials
Army Corps of Engineers, Departments of Justice, Interior and federal legislators receive tough questions from Indian advocates.
WASHINGTON – Anyone who expected Valentine’s Day-like love letters from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) to federal officials attending the advocacy organization’s virtual winter conference would have been sorely disappointed.
Case in point: “Let’s hold their feet to the fire and get the work done that we need to do,” said Mark Macarro, first vice president of the NCAI, during the afternoon session of the D.C.-based organization’s Feb. 14 meeting, in which he pressed Michael Connor, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for civil works, on several sensitive topics.
“This is a unique opportunity in time with regard to the administration, the priorities of this particular administration, right now,” said Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. “There’s certainly an opportunity to reset and improve the relationship between the Army Corps and Indian Country.”
Macarro noted that Red Lake Nation tribal leadership had recently testified before Congress that the Army Corps should consider hiring a dedicated tribal liaison in each of the Corps’ districts across the country. (Macarro is married to Holly Cook Macarro, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation and a lobbyist with Spirit Rock Consulting LLC.)
“It’s definitely a suggestion, or recommendation, that we will take under consideration,” Connor replied, noting that he and Jaime Pinkham, principal deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for civil works, have been talking with Corps leadership about ways to improve its tribal relations. “It’s an ongoing process.” (Pinkham is a citizen of the Nez Perce Tribe.)
“What can you offer about the status of the Army Corps’ intent, stated in the unified federal agenda, to rectify its unlawful use of Appendix C and comply with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s implementing regulations for Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act?” Macarro next asked. “Who do we speak with about waiving certificates of authority that undermine tribal sovereignty and tribal leadership’s authority?”
Connor, a citizen of the Taos Pueblo, said he had recently received his “first briefing” on that particular issue. “We’re going to be moving forward to address some of the concerns that have been raised,” he added. “I need to be educated a little bit more on what our options are on a path forward.”
Connor did acknowledge a “disagreement” between the Corps and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
On the issue of controversial pipelines running through Indian Country, Connor said the following: “There’s been tension in the way the Corps has historically gone about…permitting activities that impact the interests of tribes and tribal treaty rights. We are going to revamp and modernize and update the tribal consultation policy that the Corps has.”
Aaron Payment, chairperson of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said in the online chat during Macarro’s Q&A session that near the end of the Obama administration, federal officials had worked closely with NCAI to conduct a series of multi-agency consultations on the appropriate use of Indigenous lands.
“In unison, tribes pushed for protection of sacred sites, treaty rights and full environmental and NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] assessment,” Payment said.
Payment noted to Connor that the Army Corps is “not always up front in respecting” Indigenous lands, and he pressed Connor to “restart the dialog…to put in place real protections now.” The Army Corps controls rulemaking related to the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline in Payment’s region.
Similarly difficult questions were posed by tribal leaders to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, former president of the Bay Mill Indian Community.
Stephen Roe Lewis, recording secretary of the NCAI, asked Garland how the administration will support the enactment of increased tribal criminal jurisdiction called for within the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, introduced after a long wait last week in the Senate.
While Garland said it was “easy” to support the VAWA legislation, the answer of how to support increased tribal jurisdiction, if enacted by Congress, is more difficult.
“Consultation and partnership” will be important, Garland said, adding that the U.S. Department of Justice will seek to provide grants to tribes and technical assistance.
Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, further asked how Justice will work with other federal agencies to enact President Joe Biden’s executive order last year, which called for improved public safety and criminal justice for Native Americans.
“Federal government agencies will be working closely together,” Garland promised. “We cannot achieve our joint goal of reducing violence in tribal areas without mutual respect – particularly respect on our side – for the concerns of tribal governments.”
Garland said that he understands that communication from some U.S. Attorney offices with tribal law enforcement has been poor.
“We will be engaged with you,” Garland said. “We know that is the only way we’re going to solve these problems.”
Newland next independently brought up “reports last week on the nature of the contracting process surrounding” his directive last year for a third-party investigation of more than a dozen deaths at Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded correctional facilities over the previous five years.
“I understand some of the scrutiny it’s receiving,” Newland said. “As a political appointee, I don’t get involved in procurement decisions, but I do work to make sure that our process is ethical and fair. I intend to make sure that this contract was awarded in an ethical and fair manner, in accordance with the law.”
Certain legislators are closely watching Newland’s stated desire to follow the law here, since it is known in some circles of Congress that there was at least one law that he did not deem as important to follow when he previously served at Interior during the Obama administration. That is, when resources were admittedly limited, he was partially responsible during his past service for overlooking a law related to tribal labor statistics reporting requirements to Congress at Interior, and this angered members of Congress who knew at the time that the law in question was being intentionally ignored.
Lawmakers are said to be currently following up on that issue with Newland, especially since tribal labor numbers have become such a hot topic during the pandemic.
In response to a question from Lance Gumbs, vice chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, Newland further said that Interior is working to improve the land-into-trust process for tribes and addressing issues related to restricted fee lands.
Stacy Bohlen, chief executive officer of the National Indian Health Board, during her portion of the conference, said that federal legislators had been failing to honor their trust obligations on Indian healthcare. Government shutdowns and budget continuing resolutions are the main culprits she pointed to, due to their mutual ability to slow down funding to the Indian Health Service.
“Congress can end this practice by passing advanced appropriations that will provide two years of funding,” said Bohlen, a citizen of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. “We have a unique opportunity to get advanced appropriations enacted this year.”
The Biden administration and the Senate leadership are supportive, Bohlen said, “but we’re not getting the headway that we need – we need some muscle behind this.”
“We’re getting pushback from the Hill on some esoteric issues that really should not be a stopping point for us,” Bohlen added, saying that some Hill staffers believe Indian Country only wants advanced appropriations because the Veterans Health Administration has it.
“That is an affront to sovereignty,” Bohlen said. “Advanced appropriations supports the government’s trust obligation to provide healthcare service to our people.”
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland notably did not take questions from NCAI officials, just as she did not take questions from them at the organization’s mid-year meeting last year. To NCAI President Fawn Sharp, Haaland this time gave the excuse that she was “on travel at the moment, headed out the door to my next event” as the reason for not taking public questions from tribal leadership.
Sharp graciously accepted Haaland’s excuse, although those close to her say she and other NCAI leaders were disappointed during both the previous June session and at this session that Haaland did not choose to take at least one question.
Haaland, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, has preferred to meet privately with Sharp and other tribal leaders around the country, as opposed to making promises during large, on-the-record group sessions before many tribal leaders.
Sharp has reportedly told peers that it would be helpful to have some of what Haaland has told her in private on the record publicly, in the service of the development of stronger tribal policy and so that a wider swath of tribal leaders can get a better understanding of the inner workings of the Biden administration on Native topics, including notable problems the administration has had with consultation related to pandemic relief funding and the now defunct vaccine mandate. Sharp serves as the vice president of the Quinault Indian Nation.
Haaland is preparing to share her thoughts more broadly with tribal leaders on many issues, people close to her in the administration say, and she has pointed to that plan in her public statements.
“This administration and my amazing team at Interior will continue to rely on NCAI and other tribal organizations to support [our] work…so that we get it right,” Haaland said in her prepared remarks at the conference.
Along those lines, Haaland promised continued tribal consultation and increased tribal input via her recently established Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee.
Like Haaland, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — who both provided pre-recorded remarks to the conference — also did not take any questions from tribal leadership.
With major tribal provisions of the Violence Against Women Act pending before Congress, as well as health, trust lands, and gaming matters currently before both chambers, tribal leaders said that Schumer and Pelosi should work harder to engage, given a virtual opportunity like the NCAI conference.
“Tribal leaders want to ask public questions of the leaders in Congress,” one tribal attendee said, candidly. “It is their job to oversee Indian affairs, so they need to be able to show they have direct knowledge of our sovereign issues. Give us the respect that you would give world leaders.”
The lack of answers from Schumer and Pelosi stood in stark contrast to U.S. Reps Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) who all attended the conference live and robustly engaged with tribal leaders.
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