Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney addresses the executive council winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

'Do your job': Tribes slam Trump administration on sovereignty and homelands

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Trump administration's point person on Indian policy took a brutal beating here as tribal leaders opened a meeting in the nation's capital with warnings about dire threats to their sovereignty.

At the National Congress of American Indians winter session on Tuesday, tribal leaders confronted Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney with numerous questions about her effectiveness. Even as she reiterated her pledge to serve as an "advocate" within the Republican political administration, the doubts once again exposed her limited ability to influence decisions coming out of Washington, D.C.

"You decide what's appropriate and inappropriate for Indian Country," Jessie "Little Doe" Baird, the vice chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, told Sweeney at NCAI's meeting, being hosted at a hotel just a couple of blocks from the White House occupied by Donald Trump.

But instead of asserting authority as an advocate, tribal leaders accused Sweeney of allowing other political officials to dictate outcomes for Indian Country. They said the Department of the Interior is moving to restrict how tribes in the lower 48 states and in Alaska can reclaim their homelands -- many of which were stolen by colonial governments and were taken through fraudulent dealings -- all without soliciting their input.

"It's unconscionable and unthinkable that [on] something that is this critically important to so many tribes [we] are not being consulted with," said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. "It appears there is something going on underneath our noses, behind closed doors, that could undermine our sovereignty and our ability to have our tribal lands protected by the United States, which we paid for in advance through the blood and life of our ancestors, our natural resources and our lands."

And while tribal leaders initially couched their concerns to Sweeney as rumors originating from the D.C. swamp, she all but acknowledged ongoing efforts to replace, rescind or otherwise eliminate two legal opinions that had been issued during the Barack Obama administration in order to bolster tribal rights. She said the Office of the Solicitor at Interior, whose leader was formally installed just a few months ago, was the one calling the shots on key Indian policy issues.

"She confirmed it," Lance Gumbs, a longtime regional vice president of NCAI who serves as the vice chairman of the Shinnecock Nation, told Indianz.Com after the dust up.

By the end of the day, NCAI was being pushed to take stronger action. Ron Allen, the organization's longtime former treasurer, said tribes must send a clear message to Sweeney about her trust and treaty responsibilities to the first Americans.

"Make it unequivocally clear: This your job," said Allen, who received a special honor from NCAI on Tuesday evening in recognition of his decades of service.

"Do your job and get our land back into trust," said Allen, who has served as chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe for more than four decades.

Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and only the second woman in that role, also faced criticism about a project that is near and dear to President Trump's re-election campaign. Construction of the controversial and costly wall along the U.S. border with Mexico recently resulted in the destruction of tribal burial grounds, said Ned Norris, Jr., the chairman of the Tohono O'doham Nation

"They desecrated those human remains that were there," Norris said, citing activities that just took place a couple of weeks ago in Arizona, right after a key Democratic member of Congress visited the border to oversee construction of the wall.

"You have an obligation to protect sacred sites, sacred areas and religious areas for Native American people," Norris, whose people were divided by the imposition of the border through their homelands, told Sweeney. "You have failed to protect those areas."

"I call on you to exercise your responsibility and stop the destruction of sacred sites within Native American communities," Norris said to applause.

The fire directed at Sweeney hardly comes as a surprise. During her appearance at NCAI's 76th annual conference last October, she was hit with similar complaints about the fee-to-trust process at Bureau of Indian Affairs and how it is impacting tribes whose federal recognition was only recently confirmed by the U.S. government, as well as tribes in Alaska.

Four months later, and long after her arrival in D.C. in the summer of 2018, Sweeney remains outmaneuvered at Interior, the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country. She admitted that Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, who was narrowly confirmed by the U.S. Senate to his post last September, was holding the cards when it comes to tribal homelands in the lower 48 and in Alaska.

"I have to tell you that the Solicitor's Office sets the position for the department," Sweeney said on Tuesday, essentially abdicating authority to the legal arm of her agency. "My role is one of advocacy, and advocacy for clarity and decision-making."

"In my discussions with the Solicitor, I continue to advocate that Indian Country deserves to have transparency in the process," Sweeney continued. "Indian Country deserves to have decisions rendered in a timely manner and that there's clarity in how we make decisions."

For tribal leaders from Sweeney's home state of Alaska, timeliness and transparency have all but gone out of the window. Jackie Pata, NCAI's longtime former executive director, posed nearly the exact same question to the Assistant Secretary on Tuesday as she did in October.

"We have heard nothing from the department as to where we are with any proposed rules, or even just implementing Alaska land-into-trust," said Pata, who serves as second vice president for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, which is the largest Native government in the state. "I'd love to have your response."

The response hadn't changed, and it again rested on the whims of the Solicitor's Office at Interior, which halted all land-into-trust applications in Alaska and put a hold on a pro-tribal legal opinion affecting tribes in the state, before Sweeney could even take office.

"The land-into-trust issue with respect to Alaska is still under review," Sweeney said of a process that was initiated by the legal arm of Interior more than 18 months ago, to no apparent conclusion. "I don't have any other information to provide you at this time."

"I wish I could give you a different answer but you know that I will always give you an answer," Sweeney added. "It may not be one that we agree on -- but you're going to get an answer from me."

The legal opinion, known internally as M-37043, was written during the Obama administration after tribes in Alaska secured a major court victory that confirmed their right to have their homelands restored through the fee-to-trust process. A formal regulation, also finalized during the Obama era, adopted the outcome of the decision.

Even though the court ruling was never reversed, the Trump administration refuses to follow it by failing to process fee-to-trust applications for tribes in Alaska. The web page for the Solicitor's Office merely states that M-37043 remains withdrawn "pending review."

Jessie "Little Doe" Baird, the vice chairwoman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, and Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, the chairwoman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, stand at a microphone during the executive council winter session of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

A second legal opinion is also on the chopping block, tribal leaders said at NCAI. M-37029 was written during the Obama administration in response to the devastating U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

According to Carcieri, the BIA can acquire lands in trust for tribes, but only for those tribes that were "under federal jurisdiction" in 1934. The legal opinion, Shinnecock Vice Chairman Gumbs told Indianz.Com, represents a "ray of hope" because it explains how an Indian nation whose status may not have been clear decades ago can continue to have their homelands protected by the U.S. government in its role as a trustee.

"We hold our lands since time immemorial," Gumbs said of his people's territory in present-day New York state. Federal laws, some dating as far back as the late 1700s, during the early days of the U.S. government, have long recognized the sovereign status of tribal lands, well before the fee-to-trust process was formally established.

Despite the documented history, outside forces -- typically states and local governments, but also non-Indian private parties -- have repeatedly pushed for a weakening of those protections. The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, whose ancestors helped some of the first Europeans survive in present-day Massachusetts some 400 years ago, is among those whose homelands are being threatened by the Trump administration's refusal to stand up to the challenges.

"Don't let them pressure you into doing the wrong thing," Vice Chairwoman Baird, whose work in preserving the Wampanoag language led her to becoming one of the first Native women to receive a prestigious "genius" grant, told Sweeney.

"Stand up for what's right if this is going on and make sure that there's consultation if this is happening," Baird said to applause at NCAI.

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