Indianz.Com Video: TylerFish of the Trump administration

'He got demoted': Trump administration moves Indian Country official out of White House

Tribal leaders and their advocates are once again questioning the Trump administration's commitment to their people, with the official who has been working on Indian Country issues being moved out of the White House in the middle of the worst public health crisis in decades.

Tyler Fish, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, has been serving as the Senior Policy Advisor and Tribal Liaison at the White House for less than a year. But starting next week, he will no longer have a role within the Executive Office of the President of the United States, according to an email obtained by Indianz.Com.

As announced by the Department of the Interior on Tuesday morning, Fish will be heading up the newly revived White House Council on Native American Affairs. During an appearance on Native America Calling in the afternoon, he touted the re-establishment of an entity that lay dormant for three-plus years of the Trump era as a step in the right direction.

"I really take this move as a vote of confidence in the positive work that we've been able to achieve in the past year or so that I've been at the White House," Fish said just a couple of hours later on the nationally-broadcast program

Native America Calling · 04-28-20 The Trump Administration’s COVID-19 relief plan
Native America Calling: The Trump Administration’s COVID-19 relief plan - March 28, 2019

An email obtained by Indianz.Com paints a different picture. William Crozer, the Special Assistant to President Donald Trump and Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs whose participation in a "listening session" last year turned into a debacle of its own, said Fish will no longer have a position at the White House come next week.

"Tyler Fish will transition from his current role as White House Senior Policy Advisor and Tribal Liaison to serve as Executive Director of the Council effective May 4, 2020," Crozer said in an early morning email on Wednesday that was addressed to "Tribal Leaders, Officials and Indian Country Professionals."

The email landed in inboxes barely 7 hours after Fish wrapped up his rosy appearance on Native America Calling. It has many recipients wondering about his standing in the nation's capital amid a bruising fight in which the Trump administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has come under heavy fire in the court system and in policy circles.

"I think he got demoted," one Washington insider who received the message told Indianz.Com.

Indian leaders are scratching their heads as well. Though many welcome the revival of a Council on Native American Affairs at the "White House," they are wondering why Fish, as the incoming executive director, is being transitioned to an entirely different federal entity, especially following his connection to another controversy in which sensitive tribal data leaked to the media and entered the public domain.

In the message, recipients were told to contact Fish at the Bureau of Indian Affairs starting on May 4. Up until this point, he has been reachable at the White House.

The White House missive went so far as to inform "Tribal Leaders, Officials and Indian Country Professionals" to email Fish at a bia.gov address. During his role as key player and eager promoter of the Trump administration's coronavirus response efforts, he has been using a more prestigious inbox set up for him at the White House Executive Office of the President.

But with tribal leaders working day and night to protect their communities from the coronavirus, which has hit some parts of Indian Country harder than the rest of America, they question whether the White House Council can be effective in the current climate. As the ongoing crisis takes a huge toll on their peoples' lives and well-being, they see their needs in the coming months being drowned out by a high-stakes election in which Donald Trump's future -- and possibly Fish's too -- is in doubt.

"I'm glad that the administration is finally reestablishing the council," President Bryan Newland of the Bay Mills Indian Community told Indianz.Com. "It has been frustrating to see it languish so long, and I'm skeptical about how effective it can be during the middle of an election year dominated by a pandemic."

Yet while many have been pushing since January 2017 to see the White House Council on Native American Affairs being brought back to life, the issue isn't on top of everyone's agenda at the moment. Tribal leaders are still waiting for their shares of an $8 billion coronavirus relief fund promised to their governments, with the Department of the Treasury still unable to figure out to distribute the much-needed money despite being charged to do so more than a month ago.

"The most important thing to Indian Country right now is for the administration to distribute the funds Congress provided to tribal governments to keep our people safe from the coronavirus," said Newland, who previously worked at the BIA.

Jonodev Chaudhuri, the chairman of the Indian Law and Policy Group at the Quarles and Brady firm, also voiced concerns. Putting the Council on Native American Affairs under the auspices of one agency diminishes the gains tribal leaders have made in elevating the government-to-government relationship, he said.

Through regular events like the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, which hasn't taken place since Trump entered office more than three years ago, leaders of every federal agency, department, office and bureau committed to upholding the entire government's commitment to Indian Country, which the U.S. Supreme Court has described as moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust. The latest announcement from Washington muddies the waters.

“A powerful cornerstone of prior White House Tribal Nations Conferences before they were placed in moratorium was that Cabinet members and agency heads regularly acknowledged that the federal trust responsibility extends to all agencies and every corner of the federal government," Chaudhuri, who served as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission during the later part of the Barack Obama presidency and through the early years of the Trump era, told Indianz.Com. "Engagement by the White House was and is critical to this message."

"It is very reasonable for tribal nations to be concerned whenever the trust responsibility appears to be relegated only to Interior,” Chaudhuri, who like Fish is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, said of BIA's parent agency.

A. Gay Kingman, the long-serving executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen's Association, said she is "very skeptical" about the Trump administration's actions. She too questioned why the White House Council on Native American Affairs -- despite its name -- would not be operated out of the White House.

"We’ve long called for it to be at the White House," Kingman, a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told Indianz.Com. "That's where it should be."

Kingman pointed to a lengthy list of resolutions in which the Indian nations of Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota have sought to raise their treaty-based commitments to the highest levels of the U.S. government. Their people in the Great Plains account for 10 percent of the enrolled tribal population and their reservations encompass nearly 25 percent of all trust lands, even after their territories were whittled down by questionable federal actions and continued to be impacted by decisions that are disconnected from the trust relationship.

But with Fish and the Council on Native American Affairs headed to Interior, Kingman said the initiative will be overshadowed by lingering conflict of interest and ethical issues facing Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, who is a Trump political appointee at the department. Leaders from the Great Plains were the first to call for her resignation and their concerns helped guide every major Indian Country organization to unite and sign an unprecedented letter seeking her recusal from the $8 billion coronavirus relief fund.

"We will be watching very carefully," Kingman told Indianz.Com.

Within the administration, no overt action has been taken against Sweeney, who defended her role in the $8 billion in a statement earlier this month. Interior as a whole has insisted that Congress made the call to include Alaska Native corporations as recipients of the fund even though they are not tribal governments.

A federal judge dealt a serious blow to the Trump administration's defense on Monday. The ruling also was a big knock against Alaska's all-Republican delegation to Congress, whose members reacted negatively to the legal development.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), for example, claimed without proof or elaboration that the tribes behind the lawsuit operate “billion dollar casino operations that nobody seems to be paying much attention to." He said the Alaska delegation will "monitor this closely."

Indianz.Com Video: #CoronavirusReliefFund: Reaction from Alaska

In light of the bitter dispute, another Washington insider said Fish's "transition" to Interior can be traced to a lack of confidence in Sweeney. She is a former high-ranking executive of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which is the wealthiest Native business entity in Alaska and one that stands to benefit from the $8 billion that is being held up at Treasury.

"It indicates a little bit of loss of faith in Tara Sweeney for this whole debacle," the person, who worked in federal government during a prior administration, told Indianz.Com

'They trust Tyler Fish more than they trust Tara Sweeney," the person added. "I think that's obvious. This is like putting a leash on Sweeney."

Sweeney, for her part, is welcoming the additional layer of oversight. She too appeared on Native America Calling after the announcement was made on Wednesday morning.

“Indian Affairs is proud to support the White House Council on Native American Affairs, which will help the administration be even more responsive to Indian Country and effective in partnering with it," Sweeney said in Interior's news release.

In the release, the policy action was described as one made by the White House in "conjunction" with Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. As of late Wednesday afternoon, no posts about the Council on Native American Affairs have appeared on his social media channels or on any of the ones maintained by main Interior. Sweeney's feed is the only one that mentions it.

“We are looking forward to partnering with Tyler, whose proven leadership and legacy of bridge building throughout the federal government is meaningful and beneficial for all of us in the administration, Indian Country and Alaska Native communities," Sweeney said in the release.

Members of the Navajo Nation Council expressed their congratulations to White House Senior Policy Advisor and Tribal Liaison Tyler Fish on his appointment to the White House Council on Native American Affairs.

Posted by Indianz.Com on Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Some tribal leaders are indeed voicing confidence in Fish's new role. Delegates to the Navajo Nation Council, the legislative body on the largest reservation in the United States, said the White House Council on Native American Affairs will be able to coordinate various federal agencies that deal with tribes and their needs.

“With the appointment of Tyler Fish to lead this critical effort, we know the issues unique to Indian Country will continue to be well-represented in the administration’s priorities," said Delegate Seth Damon, who serves as Speaker of the 24th Navajo Nation Council.

With the help of a Navajo citizen who once claimed he was offered a tribal policy job in Trump's White House, Fish has arranged conference calls between delegates on the Navajo Nation Council and various entities, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The effort, though, has not been met with widespread approval in the federal family -- higher-ups at the Department of Homeland Security told FEMA to stop participating in such calls as they were seen as duplicating already existing coronavirus efforts with the tribe, which has more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other Indian nation.

“We thank Mr. Fish for his ongoing advocacy of the needs and priorities of the Navajo Nation and all tribal nations," said Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton. "This is a great opportunity for Navajo leaders to connect directly with our national counterparts to further Navajo sovereignty."

Tyler Fish, a senior policy advisor and tribal liaison at the White House, and Doug Hoelscher, a deputy assistant to President Donald Trump and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, are seen on the steps of the U.S. Capitol following an event for missing and murdered Indigenous women on September 24, 2019. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Besides seeing his move as a "vote of confidence," Fish on Native America Calling said his role as executive director of the Council on Native American Affairs will be to continue the work he has already been doing at the White House since July 2019.

Fish described that work as consisting of "inter-agency coordination, engaging with tribal leaders directly, ensuring there is a primary point of contact where a tribal leader can call and it doesn't matter what their issue is. It can be anywhere within the federal government."

"If they have someone that they can trust is going to triage that issue and run it to ground and find either an answer or a solution for the issue that they're facing," Fish said.

"I'm just incredibly excited for the opportunity," Fish said on Native America Calling.

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