david bernhardt melania trump
Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, right, and First Lady Melania Trump participate in opening of the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on September 19, 2019. Photo: Tami A. Heilemann / U.S. Department of the Interior
Trump administration short on details for White House Council on Native American Affairs
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Indianz.Com

The Trump administration insists the White House Council on Native American Affairs is “moving full speed ahead” despite declining to detail the work it’s supposedly doing as the November presidential election quickly approaches.

The recently revived council met an early demise when its leader — executive director Tyler Fish, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation — went on military leave last month. His absence is expected to last through mid-October.

After Indianz.Com reported about the apparent setback on August 31, the Department of the Interior reached out two days later to stress that Secretary David Bernhardt continues to serve as chair of the council, which is focused on advancing President Donald Trump’s priorities for Indian Country. But when asked what exactly that means, the agency fell silent on the specifics.

“We’re moving full speed ahead and continue to execute the work of the task force,” a spokesperson for the department told Indianz.Com. It’s not clear why the council was described as a “task force” by the spokesperson.

When pressed again to explain what the White House Council on Native American Affairs is doing for tribes and their citizens, the spokesperson pointed to the executive order that established the entity. The executive order was signed by former president Barack Obama — way back in June 2013.

“Per the executive order, Secretary Bernhardt is the chairman of the council, and under his leadership the council continues to help drive administration policy priorities supporting Indian Country, including economic development and rural prosperity, energy development, infrastructure, public health, cultural resources, public safety, veterans’ affairs and education & workforce development,” the spokesperson said.

The 2013 Obama order indeed identifies the Secretary of the Interior as the chair of the council. Still, Indianz.Com had to ask repeatedly who was running the council in Fish’s absence before an answer finally emerged from Washington, D.C.

But the person in charge is not Tara Sweeney, who serves as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs for the Trump administration. An Inupiat from Alaska, she’s the only Native American in a Senate-confirmed position at Interior, a stark contrast to the Obama era, when at least four tribal citizens were in high-ranking leadership jobs at the department.

Instead, the council falls under the purview of a mid-level political appointee, according to the Interior spokesperson. Mark Cruz, a citizen of the Klamath Tribes who serves as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs for Policy and Economic Development is supposed to be in charge while Fish is away.

“So while Mr. Fish is on leave fulfilling his military commitments for our country, Mark Cruz is the internal point of contact and overseeing the important operations of the council,” the spokesperson told Indianz.Com.

It’s not clear why the Trump administration failed to identify Cruz as supposedly being in charge when asked about the council’s leadership on August 24, again on August 25 and twice on September 2.

Fish’s abrupt departure from Washington came just four months he was named executive director of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. He announced his military leave in an email to tribal leaders just two business days before going away on August 17.

“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.

But he also assured recipients of his eventual return to the nation’s capital.

“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,” he wrote in his message.

Fish is a career employee at Interior — he isn’t a political appointee like Sweeney and Cruz. So his future is not necessarily tied to Donald Trump, whose record in Indian Country has been characterized by a slew of actions that have gone against tribal interests, whether it’s been the repeated approvals of unwanted and construction pipelines, the construction of a wall along the U.S. border over the objections of Indian nations or the disestablishment of a reservation for the first time since the disastrous termination era.

During Tribal Unity Days virtual event on Wednesday, Ambassador Lance Gumbs from the Shinnecock Nation, called for Interior to be held “accountable for the decisions that clearly go against its role as a trustee to the tribal nations of this country.”

Gumbs noted that Interior rescinded a legal opinion that helped tribes restore the homelands they lost to negative federal policies. The decision was made in March, without prior consultation or notice to tribes like the Shinnecock, who have yet to realize the benefits of the land-into-trust process at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Similarly, Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. of the Tohono O’odham Nation decried the Trump administration’s “harmful efforts” in connection with the wall that would run along his tribe’s reservation in southern Arizona. He said the project will “waste billions of taxpayer dollars” while failing to address serious public safety problems that have long persisted at the border.

“Construction of this useless wall has inflicted great harm to the Tohono O’odham Nation and other border communities,” Norris said during the event, which is being hosted by the National Congress of American Indians and co-sponsored by nearly every major inter-tribal organization in the United States.

“It has damaged our environment and wildlife and destroyed our sacred sites and cultural resources,” added Norris, who earlier this year pleaded with Assistant Secretary Sweeney to stop the desecration of burial grounds and other important places, to no avail.

But with the presidential election less than 50 days away, critics of the administration are eager to chart a new course in federal-tribal relations. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee, said Interior has been a major problem in the Trump era.

“One of the things that we need to, as tribes and as members of Congress, is really look at Interior because there’s going to be serious repair work that has to be done there,” Grijalva said on Wednesday at Tribal Unity Days.

“One of the reforms has to be within BIA, to redefine and reform that branch,” Grijalva said of an agency overseen by a Director, by the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs and by the Secretary of the Interior.

In order for tribes to be truly heard, whether it’s being adequately consulted or ensuring that their sacred places are protected, is to “elevate whoever is in charge of that, to a status that is not under two or three other people,” asserted Grijalva, whose committee exercises jurisdiction and oversight over Indian Country issues.

The White House Council on Native American Affairs, as established by Obama’s executive order, was supposed to help address some of the hurdles tribes face in dealing with federal agencies. In hopes of ensuring the council survived a change in presidents, Interior named Anthony “Morgan” Rodman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Osage Nation, as its executive director.

But after taking office in January 2017, Donald Trump and his administration proceeded to ignore the council for more than three years. It was finally “re-established” in early May, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold across Indian Country.

So far, the council’s primary achievement has been the establishment of subcommittees, whose members are culled from representatives of various federal agencies.

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White House Council on Native American Affairs meets quick demise under Donald Trump (August 31, 2020)
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