Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney testifies at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., on May 8, 2019. Photo: SCIA

'I came from the White House': Trump tweet coincides with Indian Affairs meeting

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney said she was at the White House on Wednesday, just as her boss was sending out a racial tweet that derailed passage of pro-tribal bills in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I came from the White House earlier this morning," Sweeney told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs later in the afternoon, "talking about Indian Country, the challenges in Indian Country, and what we can do as collective federal partners to address those challenges."

But when Indianz.Com asked specifically whether the two pro-tribal bills were discussed at the White House meeting, the Department of the Interior would not confirm or deny.

"Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs Sweeney led a discussion with the White House Domestic Policy Council and fellow agency officials on Indian Country priorities and ways to improve services across the administration," a spokesperson told Indianz.Com

The spokesperson added: "The discussions focused on strengthening inter-agency coordination and cooperation as it relates to Indian Country."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - The President’s FY2020 Budget Request for Indian Programs - May 8, 2019

Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native woman to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, has repeatedly been told by tribal leaders and key members of Congress to act as a stronger advocate for tribes and their issues. She has repeatedly said she hears the message but it did not carry through as President Donald Trump attacked the legislation while his administration was attempting to advance Indian Country's issues during their meeting at the White House.

“Yesterday's pulling of two bills intended to address concerns of tribal nations is unfortunate, particularly if they were pulled in response to a social media posting from our President," National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel told Indianz.Com on Thursday.

"Misinformation about tribal homeland restoration legislation yesterday morning serves only to confuse issues of great importance to Indian Country," said Keel, who also serves as lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation.

H.R.312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, was one of the bills pulled from consideration on Wednesday. It confirms that the reservation of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is in trust and can't be challenged in court.

A similar law was enacted for another tribe in 2014 without controversy. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld it as constitutional in a decision issued during Trump's second year in office.

National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel testifies at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., on May 8, 2019. Photo: SCIA

Responding directly to Trump's attack, Keel said: "H.R. 312, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act, is not a gaming bill. That bill is a reservation lands reaffirmation bill, meaning it ensures that a federally recognized tribal nation has a homeland for present and future generations."

H.R.375 was the second bill pulled. It confirms that all tribes, regardless of the date of their federal recognition, can restore their homelands through the land-into-trust process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is overseen by Sweeney.

The measure is known as a "clean" fix to the Supreme Court's decision in Carcieri v. Salazar, which created uncertainty for newly recognized tribes. Mashpee, whose federal status wasn't finalized until 2007, is among them.

"If the President truly cares about equal treatment of Native Americans, NCAI expects the President to issue a tweet supporting a clean Carcieri fix, which would ensure that all tribal nations received equal treatment under the Indian Reorganization Act," Keel said of HR.375.

At 11:48am, right before the start of legislative business in the House on Wednesday, Trump called on Republicans to oppose H.R.312. He invoked the name of Pocahontas, a Native woman who was taken away from her people by European colonizers in the early 1600s, in order to taunt Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), a popular lawmaker who is one of his political opponents.

During the last session of Congress, Warren was a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Reservation Reaffirmation Act. A new version has not been introduced in her chamber but Republicans and the conservative media have repeatedly derided H.R.312 as a "Warren" bill in a manner echoed by Trump with his tweet.

"Once again, we call on the President to refrain from using Pocahontas’ name in a disparaging manner," Keel said. "It’s insulting, disrespectful, and perpetuates the dehumanization of Native peoples.”

Keel wasn't the only one upset with the president's actions. The Sovereignty Protection Fund of the United South and Eastern Tribes said Trump "'demonstrated his authentic disrespect and disregard towards Indian Country" with his 24-word tweet.

"Calls from Indian Country for the President to cease his use of Pocahontas’ name in a disparaging manner and concerns expressed by Indian Country about this administration’s effort to take land out of trust fall only on deaf ears," the organization, which represents 27 tribal nations, including one with ties to Pocahontas and her people, said in a statement on Indianz.Com. "Unfortunately, these are just two examples of this administration’s shameful lack of respect for Native Americans and its disregard of the sacred trust and treaty obligations it supposedly honors."

During their Impact Week meeting in the nation's capital in March, leaders of USET called on Assistant Secretary Sweeney to support the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe's legislation and the Carcieri fix as part of her trust and treaty responsibilities. She insisted that she heard the message.

"You should be able to rely on us to be that advocate," Sweeney said at the time. "We take the trust responsibility seriously."

But there is little to indicate Sweeney is able to exert influence among her colleagues in the Trump administration, or at least in a way that has resulted in significant gains for tribal nations. The fiscal year 2020 budget request, for example, calls for nearly $300 million in cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

"Assistant Secretary Sweeney, you pledged during your confirmation hearing to be an advocate for Indian Country not only from within the halls of Interior, but also across the executive branch," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "Unfortunately, the administration’s proposed budget does not appear to reflect such advocacy."

Udall's comments prompted Sweeney to reveal the White House meeting, which she hadn't mentioned up until that point. The hearing was nearly over by that time, and she appeared to be on the defensive.

"I can tell you that we are actively engaged with the administration and the federal partners on a regular basis, having discussions," Sweeney said after Udall asked her to explain how she was working with the "other agencies and the White House to ensure Indian Country has a seat at the table" on issues like the budget.

"This is not the first discussion, but it is in the beginning stage of a very long discussion," Sweeney said of the meeting at the White House

"I hope the message gets through from you to the other partners and all the way up to the White House," Udall responded. The hearing ended five minutes later.

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