White House Council on Native American Affairs meets quick demise under Donald Trump
Monday, August 31, 2020
By Acee Agoyo
In endorsing Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention last week, a prominent tribal leader touted the revival of the White House Council on Native American Affairs as a positive step for Indian Country.
The federal initiative went missing in action for the first three years of the Trump presidency, despised as a remnant of the Barack Obama era. But Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation offered his own spin on the Indian policy development, saying the council was merely "reactivated" in April.
According to Lizer, the goal of the council is "promote economic development and rural prosperity in Indian Country."
"Whenever we meet with President Trump, he has always made it a priority to repair our relationship with our federal family," asserted Lizer, who addressed the Republican Party via video last Tuesday.
With an eye toward improving coordination across federal agencies, bringing back the council has in fact been a top request of tribal leaders over the past three years. But since being "reactivated" in April, just as COVID-19 was taking a hold in Indian Country, the Trump administration has predictably let it falter before it ever really got off the ground.
Just two weeks ago on Monday, in fact, the White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA) was left without a leader. That's because Tyler Fish, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation went on a prolonged "leave of absence" as executive director of an initiative that's supposed to be one of Trump's major achievements.
And in a sign of the lesser value placed on the council's work, Fish -- who had only been in the position for four months -- announced his departure in an email to tribal leaders only two business days prior.
"Good evening," Fish said around 8:13pm Eastern on a Wednesday night, "I am writing to inform you that beginning on Monday, August 17, 2020, I will be on a leave of absence for active military service through mid-October."
"I regret the inconvenience this obligation presents to our regular engagements, however, I am bound by the terms of my commission," said Fish, who has served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Indianz.Com Video: Tyler Fish in his own words
According to Fish, tribal leaders who want to engage with the WHCNAA in his absence can continue to do so through "subcommittees" that have been established. But a list he attached to the email just provided the names and contact information for federal officials at various agencies, most of them already familiar to anyone who works in Indian policy circles.
Fish did not respond to a request for comment, sent via email, about who will be leading the council for the two months he is away. He also would not say whether his military leave is taking up the entire time of his absence. Typically, military leaves for government employees are much shorter than two months and are known to the individual far in advance.
No one from the Department of the Interior responded to repeated requests for comment about leadership at the council either. In his message to tribal leaders, Fish referred to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, as well as the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as the "key points of contact for your engagement with the WHCNAA and the Administration."
"If you need assistance connecting with them, please send me an email prior to August 24, 2020," Fish wrote in one last attempt to be helpful.
Fish had been based at Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., ever since being booted from the White House campus after Indianz.Com reported of his role in a breach of sensitive tribal data by the Trump administration. His new assignment was announced just eight days after the data breach story was published. His White House-issued phone and prestigious whitehouse.gov email address were taken away just days after that.
Still, after a subsequent reassignment story was published, an official from the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs -- one of the points of contact for tribal leaders -- lashed out against Indianz.Com on social media for "dishonest" reporting about Fish's reassignment. Yet more than four months later, no high-ranking officials from from the Trump administration, not even Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, have publicly talked about the White House Council on Native American Affairs and the supposed "importance of this announcement," as the official put it.
This same White House official, just a couple of hours after Vice President Lizer's address to the GOP last Tuesday, posted a graphic created by Indianz.Com without disclosing where the image came from. He shared the graphic in hopes of promoting the Trump administration's efforts to address the crisis of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
But just in case anyone thinks Fish's leave of absence is merely a cover for being shown the door by the Trump administration, he made it clear that he intends to come back in mid-October. Notably, that's just a few weeks before the presidential election.
"At the risk of making this communication seem like a farewell letter (it’s not), I do want to say that the past 2 years have been some of the most rewarding work that I’ve experienced," said Fish, whose title at the White House was that of Senior Policy Advisor and Tribal Liaison.
Fish official employment, however, has always been through the Department of the Interior -- he was merely serving on a government detail during his time at the White House complex. He bragged to colleagues that one of the reasons he was given the more high-profile assignment was because he switched his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican after Trump took office.
Tyler FIsh moved out of White House job.... I didn't know this until today.
Fish also relinquished his citizenship in the Cherokee Nation -- which the tribe had confirmed after reporters asked about his affiliation -- in order to enroll with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The latter tribe prohibits dual enrollments.
At the time of the revival of the White House Council, some advocates in Indian Country expressed hope that it could lead to improvements in the federal-tribal relationship. But there have been little outward signs of any changes since the mid-April announcement.
"If you recall, President Obama hosted Obama hosted a Tribal Nations summit ever year of his presidency," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, said in a keynote to the National Transportation in Indian Country Conference on Monday.
"There has been little to no formal interaction by this administration to address the needs of tribes," continued Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna. "For example, there were tribes that were against the Department of the Interior reorganization, but essentially, the tribes were ignored."
“We are in dire need of Joe and people like Joe who are going to listen to us, and who are going to change policy to make our lives better for our children,” added Sally Ann Gonzales, a citizen of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe who previously served in the Arizona Legislature.
"If we think for a moment about the Obama presidency, and the fact that he moved more land into trust than any president, we can see a stark contrast between President Obama and this president," said Haaland in her keynote at the transportation conference.
Tyler Fish Leave of Absence
The text of Fish's August 12, 2020, to tribal leaders email follows:
Subject: NOTICE - Military Leave and WHCNAA POCs
Dear Tribal Leaders, et al.
Good evening, I am writing to inform you that beginning on Monday, August 17, 2020, I will be on a leave of absence for active military service through mid-October. I regret the inconvenience this obligation presents to our regular engagements, however, I am bound by the terms of my commission.
In the interim period that I am on active duty, please continue to engage with the WHCNAA through our agency leadership on the WHCNAA Subcommittees. For your convenience, the attached document includes contact information for each of the Subcommittees, their leadership, and agency representatives. Also, the Department of the Interior – Office of the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, and the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs will remain key points of contact for your engagement with the WHCNAA and the Administration. If you need assistance connecting with them, please send me an email prior to August 24, 2020.
At the risk of making this communication seem like a farewell letter (it’s not), I do want to say that the past 2 years have been some of the most rewarding work that I’ve experienced. It’s because I’ve come to know many of you personally and I’ve been able to develop a greater understanding of the issues in your communities in an effort to seek solutions together in partnership. Even more so, I’ve come to a greater understanding of your goals and the vision that you have for your people in the future. It’s an honor to be your tribal liaison and I look forward to reconnecting with you all at the conclusion of my current military orders.
Thank you for your dedication and support for a better Indian Country.
White House Council on Native American Affairs