Donald Trump's Cabinet grows with more anti-Indian advocates

The White House on YouTube: President Trump Participates in the Swearing-In of the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions

It's taking longer than expected but Republican President Donald Trump is slowly but surely getting the leadership team he wants.

Amid objections from Democrats, Republicans in the Senate confirmed two of Trump's anti-Indian figures to the Cabinet last week. The most significant was former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), who has refused to say whether he will defend the right of tribes to punish non-Indians who abuse their domestic partners.

"I have serious concerns about Senator Sessions’ opposition to landmark legislation in 2013 that protects victims of domestic violence, including protections I advocated for Native American women," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), who voted against the nomination.

But with Republicans in control of the chamber, they were easily able to confirm Sessions as the 48th Attorney General of the United States. The roll call was 52 to 47, with just one Democrat supporting the nomination.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at head of table, meets with top officials at the Department of Justice on February 9, 2017. Seated to his right is Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, who will be staying on in his role during the Donald Trump administration. Photo: Justice Department

Sessions is now in charge of the Department of Justice and advocates fear his tenure will lead to a weakening of the Violence Against Women Act. Conservative groups are already mounting a strong lobbying effort to cut funding for tribal VAWA programs and for VAWA in general.

Beyond programs at Justice, Sessions carries great power as the nation's top legal official. The team he and Trump select for top positions will dictate how the federal government handles Indian law cases, including the ongoing #NoDAPL lawsuit.

Already, a Sessions loyalist is overseeing the division at the department that handles the case. The new administration is opposing efforts by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to halt construction of the final portion of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Sessions isn't the anti-Indian advocate in the Cabinet. The Senate also confirmed former Rep. Tom Price (R-Georgia) as the new leader of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Vice President Mike Pence, right, administers the oath of office to Tom Price, the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, on February 10, 2017. Photo: SecPriceMD

Price is a fierce critic of the Affordable Care Act and, like most Republicans, supports efforts to repeal it. Doing so would also undo the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which tribes fought for more than a decade to update.

And like most Republicans, including Trump, Price has not advanced a replacement for IHCIA or explained how numerous programs at the Indian Health Service would be protected. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, has vowed to protect the landmark provisions of the law but specifics remain in limbo.

"We've heard that [but] we haven't seen it in writing," National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby said the first State of Indian Nations address of the Trump era in Washington, D.C., on Monday morning.

"We haven't heard it from the highest elected officials," Cladoosby said of the pledge to safeguard the IHCIA and the IHS.

During the Obama administration, the IHS saw historic growth in its funding levels although the amounts aren't nearly enough to address Indian Country's full needs. Price and Trump are expected to release their first budget in the coming weeks, which will give tribes an idea of the new team's approach.

The final decisions on appropriations, though, are made by Congress and Cladoosby said tribes will look to allies on both sides of the aisle to make their case.

"This isn't the first time that tribes have experienced a transition of power .. from on party to the next," Cladoosby said. "We've always looked at our issues as non-partisan."

Secretary Price, who is a physician, was confirmed by a vote of 53 to 46 on Friday. Only one Democrat supported him.

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