Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, far left, greets tribal leaders during the National Congress of American Indians 76th annual convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 21, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Top Indian Affairs official trumped out on key tribal issues in Washington

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico -- The diminished power of the Trump administration's face of Indian Affairs was on strong display here as tribal leaders opened one of their biggest meetings of the year.

Addressing the National Congress of American Indians on Monday, Tara Sweeney reminded the crowd that she recently marked her first anniversary as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political position at the Department of the Interior. But judging by the frustrations voiced repeatedly by tribal leaders, there was little cause to celebrate.

The biggest concern centered around their homelands. Though Sweeney said nearly 30,000 acres has been restored to tribes through the fee-to-trust process since she came on board, she has found herself outmaneuvered on the matter by higher powers in Washington, D.C.

"I'm proud to represent Indian Affairs within the Trump administration," Sweeney, who is Inupiat from Alaska, asserted as hundreds of tribal leaders gathered for NCAI's 76th annual convention.

Tribal leaders, however, characterized Sweeney as powerless when it comes to one of the federal government's most important trust obligations. Before she even arrived in the nation's capital, the authority to approve certain off-reservation acquisitions -- regardless of purpose -- was delegated to a higher ranking political official at Interior, they said.

"By bringing that delegation to D.C. level, you've really caused us a burden,” said Janet Wak Wak Nicholson, a business council member for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, based in Washington state.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs -- which Sweeney oversees -- should be able to make decisions for off-reservation acquisitions, at least for non-gaming purposes, according to tribal leaders. Those types of applications tend to be less controversial but the Trump administration's policy treats them all to the same heightened level of scrutiny.

"We don't want this process to go into a black hole in Washington, D.C., and not know where these applications are," said Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe.

Allen, who also serves as treasurer of NCAI, said his people have been told they are "14th in line" regarding a parcel of land near their reservation in Washington state. "I have a problem with that," he told Sweeney, urging her to find ways to ease the regulatory burdens within Interior.

On a second homelands issue, Sweeney has been cut out of the loop entirely. A day after she was confirmed to her post by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate but before she had a chance to be sworn in, another higher-ranking political official put a halt to all land-into-trust applications in Alaska.

More than a year later, tribal leaders said they have no idea what is going on. "We have an application in," said Randy Williams, a council member from the Ketchikan Tribe in southeast Alaska.

"We have never heard anything from the BIA," Williams added.

When it comes to tribes in her own backyard, Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native person to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, is just as in the dark.

"It's under review -- that's all I have," Sweeney told multiple Native leaders from her state, some of whom she has worked with for decades.

"I wish I had new information," Sweeney said.

The Trump administration pulled the plug on tribal homelands in Alaska without prior notice, following a hard-fought legal war during the Obama years, during which Interior was forced to change its position on the issue. The BIA followed up with tribal and Alaska Native corporate consultation sessions but there's been no word of progress since then.

"Do you have an idea when we might be able to get the next step forward -- being treated like the rest of the tribes in the county?" asked Jackie Pata, a citizen of the Tlingit-Haida Tribes of Alaska who served as NCAI's most recent executive director for a record 18 years.

"The only update that I have is that issue is still in the Solicitor's Office," Sweeney said, referring to an entity at Interior far out of her purview and, apparently, her influence.

But even in policy areas where Sweeney seems authorized to make headway, she displayed a lack of concern. Lance Gumbs, the vice chairman of the Shinnecock Nation, noticed that she failed to bring up Carcieri v. Salazar, the decade-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that has hindered the restoration of homelands for tribes whose federal status may have only been recently acknowledged.

"The Carcieri issue kinda wasn't mentioned your talk at all,” Gumbs said of an issue that has been on the minds of many in Indian Country since 2009.

Despite Gumbs' request for clarification, Sweeney never said whether the Trump administration supports a "fix" to the Carcieri decision even though it's been a key priority of NCAI and nearly every other inter-tribal organization.

Sweeney was just as evasive on another long-running issue: dual taxation of their lands by state and local governments. At the start of the Trump administration, tribal leaders though the BIA was moving forward with a fix to the problem, in the form of an update to the so-called Indian Trader regulations.

The initiative, which tribes believe will bring significant benefits to their economies, mysteriously disappeared from the radar following the arrival of yet another higher-ranking political person at Interior later in the year. This particular official took charge shortly before President Donald Trump announced Sweeney as his Indian Affairs pick, effectively shutting her out before she even had a chance to get to the table.

"We've been asking for this for a long time," recalled Henry Cagey, a council member from the Lummi Nation, based in Washington state, noting that his tribe believed addressing dual taxation was a priority for a Republican-led administration seemingly laser-focused on improving economies across America.

"That work suddenly stopped for some reason," Cagey said on Monday.

The official whose timing coincided with Indian Traders falling into a black hole is David Bernhardt, who started working as Deputy Secretary of the Interior in August 2017. He infamously told NCAI two years ago that Indian Traders was still a possibility under his watch.

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: David Bernhardt on Dual Taxation | Indian Trader Regulations

Two years later, Bernhardt has been promoted by Trump to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Sweeney, meanwhile, was unable to offer any sort of commitment to the Lummi Nation or to the other tribes for whom dual taxation is a big burden.

"I am committed to work with NCAI on tax policy" was all Sweeney would say.

Sweeney was just as guarded on an more symbolic matter, though one with significant social and political implications. Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, based in Massachusetts, implored a fellow Native woman to get Trump to stop using the name of Pocahontas, another Native woman, in a derogatory fashion.

"What I wanted to do is find out whether Indian Affairs is going to take an official position against condemning any denigration to the name or reference to Pocahontas," Andrews-Maltais, who served in a senior policy role at the BIA during the Barack Obama era, said to applause on Monday.

Though Sweeney said she understood the "concerns about condemning the use of Pocahontas," she made it clear that she was unable to put the BIA in any sort of leadership position. She was only able to offer something else to those concerned about the way Trump has used a Native woman's name against U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of his Democratic rivals for the presidency.

"What I can commit to you is that I will take this feedback back to the White House," Sweeney said.

NCAI and its leadership have condemned Trump's use of Pocahontas on multiple occasions. The organization also spoke out when the president linked the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 to Warren's presidential campaign earlier this year.

Despite the deep disconnects between tribes and the Trump administration, the news wasn't all bad from Washington. During her address at NCAI's annual meeting, which runs all week, Sweeney announced the first approval of an off-reservation casino under her watch at the BIA.

Sweeney said the Tule River Tribe has her blessing to relocate the Eagle Mountain Casino to a more lucrative location near its existing reservation. The process, though, isn't over yet as the governor of California must still concur with what is known as a two-part determination before the project, which has been in the works for several years, can move forward.

A different two-part determination was approved earlier in the Trump era for the Shawnee Tribe, before Sweeney came on board at the Department of the Interior. The Golden Mesa Casino opened its doors in Oklahoma in August, following more than a decade of work.

Sweeney also said she approved a gaming development for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians but the tribe did not have to go through the two-part determination process because the land in question sits adjacent to its reservation in southern California. The casino in Cathedral City, which would be the third in the tribe's enterprise, has the support of the local government.

"We are excited to begin construction on this large-scale investment in Cathedral City," Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe said earlier this month. "This project will create jobs, revitalize an undeveloped downtown property and support Cathedral City's economic development efforts."

Join the Conversation
Trending in News
More Headlines