'You should be listening to us'
Despite rose-colored federal consultation glasses, the White House Tribal Nations Summit 2022 unleashes pent up tribal frustrations.
WASHINGTON — So many concerns, so little time.
If one sentiment could capture the overarching theme of the multifaceted 2022 White House Tribal Nations Summit, concluding in D.C. at the U.S. Interior Department headquarters later today, that just might be it.
While the Biden White House and administration has unleashed a flurry of initiatives and Executive Branch fixes aimed at pleasing tribes by simply better listening to them, that’s practically impossible when there are over 300 tribal leaders gathered in one room. Not to mention hundreds more spread out throughout the nation, often in the most-geographically isolated places, some without broadband, and all with unique circumstances and varying levels of political sophistication and financial capital.
It will be difficult enough to get the ones who made it to D.C. this week all to gather on the steps of the main Interior Department building on C Street at 7:45 a.m. today for a photo op. But Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo and the first Native Interior top leader, insists she is going to try her best.
Some (maybe even a majority) of these leaders — representatives of their own unique sovereign nations who have spent the time, energy and money to get to the nation’s capital — will end up disappointed that many of their concerns were just not able to be addressed during a two-day conference.
Robert VanZile, chairman of the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin, vented his frustrations on Nov. 30 to a room full of Indian leaders who tended to agree with him.
“I’m here today on a mission to ask for some help to be able to move our community forward, but we get caught up in this bureaucracy,” the chairman lamented during the sole Q&A allotted by federal officials to tribal leaders after an economic-focused panel yesterday.
“We have 574 tribes here, and we don’t have an opportunity to speak to you,” VanZile complained as he addressed federal leaders. “This morning, they only saw three people get up and speak, so how can we express our concerns to you if we are not able to speak to you?
“I came here for a purpose and a reason, and I want to talk to people. I want to talk to Deb Haaland. I want to talk to the Department of Energy. We need to have this opportunity, so the people can speak — not have a one-way conversation where you’re sitting up there [on a stage], and we’re sitting down here listening to you.
“You should be listening to us,” VanZile concluded to strong tribal applause.
“Should I drop the mic?” he then asked, bringing some levity to a tense moment.
Haaland, who had earlier yesterday morning taken part in an education and language-focused session, was visibly uncomfortable when the moderator of her panel was only able to allow two tribal leaders to ask questions before moving everyone to quickly wrap up.
Haaland instead chose to give up her remaining closing time to allow for a third question.
Wizipan Garriott, a senior official with Interior, ultimately was forced to tell unhappy tribal leaders that they could email WHCNAA@bia.gov anytime to follow up. After a third panel yesterday, he repeated the email suggestion, saying that there was no time for any questions at all after an agriculture and homelands-focused session. There was no time after a fourth session on transportation issues featuring Secretary Pete Buttigieg, either.
No tribal leader, it’s safe to say, wanted to trek all the way to D.C. only to be told their best option to connect with policymakers was to write a message to a random, indirect email address. For far too long, that was the old way of doing business — a way for some feds to ignore tribal needs — and the Biden administration has said it wants to be radically different.
Perhaps ironically, many of the administration’s finest Native-focused minds pointed out their desires to do better on tribal communication throughout the first day of the summit.
But it was always with the caveat of “later on.” An engagement session of the White House Council on Native American Affairs was to be a catchall, it seems, but could 300-plus leaders really be heard during a meeting that was scheduled to last less than two hours late in the day? And one that apparently was not livestreamed for the many tribal leaders who could not attend, despite earlier promises from the White House that it would be?
The answer, clearly, is no. Still, administration officials said that the summit was not the only place to be heard. Some, like Haaland, have visited many tribal nations over the past year, and more agencies and committees than ever before are engaging in formal consultation sessions with tribes, both in-person and virtually.
But tribal leaders note that there is something special about a face-to-face discussion at a high-level meeting featuring the president and vice president of the U.S. that cannot be replicated via a quickie Zoom consultation.
Top federal officials feel the heat, and they realize they have made errors, which President Joe Biden echoed in remarks he made yesterday at the conference.
“I'm sure I'll make mistakes, but you know me, don't hesitate to correct me when I make it, and I know you, you won't hesitate,” Biden said to the assembled tribal leaders.
A major example of problems that can develop given poor communication presented itself when Garriott started to say that the session during which VanZile had raised his concern was “out of time.” But Garriott was quickly cut off by a politically-astute Wally Adeyemo, deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department.
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