Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community provides opening remarks at Arizona State University's Wiring the Rez conference on his tribe's homelands in Arizona on January 31, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Indian Country experts warn of gridlock in troubled political climate

By Acee Agoyo

GILA RIVER INDIAN COMMUNITY, Arizona -- Indian Country should be prepared for continued gridlock in the nation's capital, law and policy experts said here on the opening day of the Wiring the Rez conference.

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community began the conference on Thursday by highlighting the results of historic 2018 election. Not only did Democrats stage an upset by taking control of one chamber of Congress, voters in two states sent the first two Native women to Capitol Hill, he said.

With the election of Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to the U.S. House of Representatives "we see exactly how the Native vote and the influence we are having, especially in these very political times," Lewis told a crowd of tribal leaders, Native business executives, legal practitioners and students who gathered on his people's homelands for the two-day event.

But with the Senate in Republican hands and the 2020 presidential campaign kicking off earlier than usual, attendees were warned repeatedly about the troubles facing Indian Country in the next two years. The presence of President Donald Trump, whose tribal policy is virtually non-existent two years into his administration, also contributes to an era of uncertainty in Washington, D.C.

As a result, “I think that even less will happen," observed Aurene Martin, a citizen of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who has worked in Indian law and policy for two decades.

Of the divided political environment: "It’s the worst I think I've ever seen it," added Martin, who served in a senior position at the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the George W. Bush era and worked for the retired U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the legendary Northern Cheyenne lawmaker who was famous for reaching across party lines, and even crossing them.

Gary Davis, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, agreed with the somber assessment. He doesn't think Indian Country will see substantial victories in the 116th Congress, which began on January 3 with Democrats in control of the House and the GOP in charge of the Senate.

“I think it will be naive to think that any major legislation will get through this Congress," said Davis, a successful entrepreneur who serves as executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association, an organization deeply involved in policy issues in D.C.

But gridlock can't only be blamed on the legislative branch. The entire U.S. government, according to Ken Salazar, who ran the Department of the Interior during the first four years of the Barack Obama administration, appears to be "dysfunctional."

The former president, whose Indian policy gains over eight years are seen as among the most significant of any era, is "probably not very happy with what you are seeing in Washington, D.C.,” Salazar said in an address that was supposed to have been delivered by a key member of the Trump administration.

The record-breaking government shutdown, during which tribes were forced to cut back on services, reduce hours for employees and make other adjustments, was indeed felt at the event, organized by Arizona State University's Indian Legal Program. The impasse, which has only been resolved on a temporary basis after 35 days of fighting, prevented Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native to serve in the position, from speaking here as originally planned.

Though Sweeney sent well wishes through a spokesperson, her absence was a glaring reminder of the obstacles tribes and their advocates face as they seek to ensure that the U.S. lives up to its trust and treaty responsibilities. Key Indian policy positions have gone unfilled for long stretches of time and some, including the director of the Indian Health Service, remain vacant to this day.

“We have people who are acting, who don't have central authority, or don't feel like they have support," said Tom Strickland, an attorney who worked with Salazar when he served as Secretary of the Interior.

The Interior Secretary's position is among those freshly out of leadership. Ryan Zinke stepped down just from the job just as the 116th Congress was beginning, mindful of the oversight that Democrats are promising to carry out into his tenure at Interior, including a controversial decision to drastically reduce the boundaries of the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah over tribal objections.

His departure leaves Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt temporarily in control of Interior's portfolio, including Indian affairs. But don't expect him to make any substantive advancements for tribes as he serves in his "acting" capacity at the department, Martin said.

"They have the looming investigations that are going to be happening in the House," she said. "Those are really going to occupy their time and make it difficult to develop a lot of policy proactively."

Martin shared other negative news at the event. The White House Council on Native American Affairs, which was established during the Obama era in hopes of making sure federal agencies do better for Indian nations, has gone dead under Trump.

“That initiative is dormant," Martin said, emphasizing that "dormant" was the euphemism someone from the Trump team relayed to her about the council.

Had Sweeney been able to provide the keynote as planned, she could have offered a more complete and public account of the Trump administration's vision for the first Americans. Since she took the position six months ago, after an unusually long delay in her confirmation, she has yet to testify before Congress, announce any new initiatives or embark on the listening tour of Indian Country she promised.

But it wasn't meant to be, because the shutdown hobbled the BIA. "We offered to fund her travel, but she would not be able to get required approvals to accept our funding," an organizer for ASU's event, now in its fifth year, told Indianz.Com.

"Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney thanks the Arizona State University's 'Wiring the Rez' Conference for her invitation and wishes the best for the conference attendees as they gather to work on this important topic," a spokesperson for the Department of the Interior told Indianz.Com in response. "Currently, Assistant Secretary Sweeney is focused on the protection of life, property and human safety in Indian Country."

The conference concludes on Friday.

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