National | Politics

Tribes brace for change with Republicans in control in Washington






President Barack Obama meets with president-elect Donald Trump in the White House on November 10, 2016. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

With President Barack Obama preparing for a smooth transition of power to Republican Donald Trump, Indian Country is adjusting to a new political reality in the nation's capital.

Come January 2017, the GOP will control the White House and both chambers of the U.S. Congress. That power alignment hasn't happened since 2007, when George W. Bush was in office and when tribes were struggling to get the Indian Health Care Improvement Act renewed.

But while tribes have grown used to working with Republican majorities in the House and in the Senate and even achieving successes, the addition of Trump to the equation poses some new challenges.

"I've heard from a lot of tribal leaders ... wondering what a Trump presidency will mean for Indian Country," National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby said during a post-election conference call on Thursday.

"The reason for that concern has been the unknown," said Cladoosby, who as chairman of the Swinomish Tribe had endorsed Democrat Hillary Clinton. "When presidential transitions occur we usually have had some experiences with the candidate or have had some idea of their record on tribal issues because most presidents have come from positions of governing."


NCAI on YouTube: Post Election Analysis Webinar

With Trump, the situation is different. He only launched his Native American Coalition last week but didn't offer any policies, goals or ideas for Indian Country.

"With president-elect Trump, all we know of his record on tribal issues are statements he made in the 1990s from the gaming hearing," noted Cladoosby, referring to the real estate mogul's now legendary appearance on Capitol Hill back in 1993.

Despite the uncertainties, NCAI, as a non-partisan organization, is looking for ways in which tribes can navigate the new political world and maybe even get some things done. Jacqueline Pata, the organization's executive director, said unity will play an important role going forward.

"When we can come together, we are really strong," Pata said on the webinar. "We really make differences happen."

One of the biggest priorities will be getting tribal citizens named to top positions in the new administration. That usually means the leaders of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, the Administration for Native Americans and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

But Obama raised the bar more than any other president and tribes want to see that record continue. He created the first-ever Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs post at the White House, a position held by three successive Native women. He nominated Hillary Tompkins, a member of the Navajo Nation, to serve as the top legal official at the Department of the Interior and she was the first Native person ever in that job.

"We will continue to push for Native Americans in the administration in every place we can," Pata said.


The White House on YouTube: President Obama Meets With President-Elect Trump

Trump has launched greatagain.gov, a mirror of his campaign slogan, for the transition effort. While it's still a bare-bones site, tribal citizens interested in the more than 4,000 political appointments will be able to submit resumes and connect with the incoming team.

For Interior, which houses the BIA, the NIGC and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, Trump has tapped attorney David Bernhardt as the transition lead. Bernhardt once served as Solicitor at the department and ran its Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs during the Bush administration.

Pata said Bernhardt "has a good working knowledge of Indian Country. So that gives us some reassurances."

Trump's Native American Coalition also has some familiar names although not all are seen as friendly ones. One of the most notable is Ross Swimmer, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who drew widespread opposition in Indian Country when he returned to Washington, D.C., to run the Office of the Special Trustee for George W. Bush.

Most of the other members of the coalition, however, are unknowns, lacking name recognition as leaders in their respective communities. But that doesn't mean they aren't seen as potential talent for Trump, based on the experience of a Navajo veteran who once worked for the future president in New York City.


The White House on YouTube: President Obama Delivers a Statement

"When I showed up at his organization, the only experience I had was my Marine Corps military experience and my Shiprock High School diploma," Berinda Deluca-Rininger said at a Navajo Republican Rally last Friday, referring to a public school on the New Mexico portion of the reservation. "But he saw something in me and he said, 'You know what, I'll hire you.'"

Deluca-Rininger, who also goes by the name Bee Jay Burke, credited Trump for advancing her career. "He taught me the importance of attention to detail, the importance of loyalty, the importance of business etiquette," she said of her former employer.

As for the position of Secretary of the Interior, speculation is running wild. Nearly two dozen names -- many of them familiar to Indian Country because they are governors, lawmakers or figures from Western states -- are being floated around D.C.

Historically, an incoming president starts announcing Cabinet-level positions in December, with the goal of getting the confirmation process rolling as soon as Congress returns to work the following month. In ideal situations, these top officials would be confirmed within days of Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017.

The Secretary of the Interior, who oversees the BIA and often plays a huge role in setting the Indian Country agenda, is typically among the first few that are announced. Obama made his pick -- Ken Salazar, who incidentally was heading up Clinton's now-dismantled transition -- on December 19, 2008. Bush nominated Gale Norton on December 29, 2000, which was later than expected because his presidency was in limbo until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and ended a ballot counting dispute earlier in the month.

The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, which oversees the BIA, is typically announced after the Interior Secretary confirmation process has concluded. In Obama's case, Larry EchoHawk was officially nominated in April 2009 although tribes got early word in January of that year, in part because Salazar attended a tribal transition meeting held right before the inauguration and dropped some hints.

NCAI is hosting a similar meeting on January 19.

"We will work with our federal partners, delegations, and incoming elected leadership to develop transition priorities," President Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Nation in Washington state said on Wednesday after the election. "We hope to build on the gains Indian Country has made these past several years."

"Tribal issues are non-partisan issues and when an elected leader takes an oath of office to uphold the United States Constitution that oath includes upholding our treaties which it identifies as the Supreme Law of the Land," she added.

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