‘Forgotten no more!’: Trump team puts Native people last on important call
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
By Acee Agoyo
Just days after their boss bashed Indigenous Peoples Day and got his supporters to boo the idea, members of the Donald Trump administration tried their best to portray the president as someone who cares about the interests of America’s “first” inhabitants.
During a conference call on Tuesday afternoon, several Trump political appointees announced the Putting America’s First Peoples plan. The three-page document marks the first time since the president took office almost four years ago that he has laid out any sort of Indian Country policy.
“President Trump is committed to honoring the heritage of America’s first inhabitants and partnering with Native Americans to build a brighter future,” reads the short plan, whose subtitle is an emphatic “Forgotten No More!”
Coming just two weeks before the November 3 election, the release of the plan bears all the marks of a campaign announcement. The document includes a list of promises, including one to host a national gathering of tribal leaders, a practice that Trump stopped after he became president in January 2017. Up until now, in fact, the president has failed hold such an event despite repeated requests from Indian Country.
But in the era of Trump, nothing is as it seems. The 5pm Eastern conference call was pitched by the White House as as an “important” Indian Country announcement in an invitation email sent to tribal leaders earlier in the day.
As a result, few in Indian Country had any idea what they signed up for. “It probably will be just another waste of all of our time,” said one tribal official, who was lured into a similar 5pm call by the White House on the Friday before Memorial Day, only to find out little of substance was delivered.
And with no one from the president’s re-election campaign involved, the call had an inadvertent yet telling effect. The announcement ended up putting the “first peoples” dead last.
Instead of the plan being led off by a tribal leader, or even by a prominent Native person in the Trump administration, the first speaker was Doug Hoelscher, a non-Indian who serves as director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House.
The second presenter wasn’t Native either, according to people who listened to the call. It was Jennie Lichter, another non-Indian from the White House whose area of expertise being the Domestic Policy Council.
Who came next? Another non-Indian: Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who leads the federal agency that put an anti-Indian figure in charge of public lands, many of which are located on ancestral tribal territory.
So it turned out that the first Native voice on the other end of the line was the fourth on the line. The achievement belonged to Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation, one of the few elected tribal leaders who wants to see Trump win a second term in office.
And with Lizer’s remarks, the White House finally opened the doors for other Native people to talk. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and vocal Trump supporter came next, according to participants.
Indianz.Com Video: Chairman of Crow Tribe | Donald Trump | Republicans #NativeVote20
And from there, callers heard from the types of surrogates one might expect to see talking about an “important” policy update, or maybe even on the presidential campaign trail. There was Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, an Inupiat who is the first Alaska Native person in the post; Jeannie Hovland, a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe who serves as Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans; and, finally, Trent Shores, who hails from the Choctaw Nation and is the only Native U.S. Attorney in the Trump administration.
But this not being an ordinary presidential administration or an ordinary campaign, there has been little overt coordination to amplify the Putting America’s First Peoples plan. As of Wednesday afternoon, for example, none of the Twitter accounts belonging to Sweeney, Hovland or Shores had bothered to share the “important” message with their followers in Indian Country, the types who might otherwise be interested in policy announcements.
Secretary Bernhardt hadn’t shared the plan either. The only accounts that promoted it ended up being ones belonging to the White House, whose coordination of the call put the “first” Americans last.
But the White House’s message, if there is one, has not been entirely lost. Two key Republican members of Congress who weren’t on the call shared their positive assessments of the plan after the announcement on Wednesday
“While Native Americans are often overlooked, President Trump has consistently made it a priority to deliver resources and advance real solutions to ensure safer, stronger and more prosperous tribal nations,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, asserted in a statement. “That has included tackling the heartbreaking and rampant problem of missing and murdered indigenous women, not only through executive actions like Operation Lady Justice but recently by signing into law the Not Invisible Act and Savanna’s Act.”
“Moreover, amid the coronavirus crisis, the president recognized the need to get targeted relief to tribes and delivered record funding to aid them in this fight,” added Cole, without mentioning that the Trump administration delayed $8 billion in COVID-19 relief to Indian nations and is still holding onto $534 million due to a contested and controversial interpretation of federal law that has been struck down in the courts.
Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) wasn’t on the call either. But he characterized the Putting America’s First Peoples First plan as being compatible with his work as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“We appreciate President Trump putting forward this plan today to respect tribal sovereignty, improve public safety, and invest in tribal economies, infrastructure, education and health care,” Hoeven said in a statement.
But just like Cole, Hoeven ended up highlighting the shortcomings of the Trump administration. He aligned passage of S.209, the Practical Reforms and Other Goals To Reinforce the Effectiveness of Self-Governance and Self-Determination (PROGRESS) for Indian Tribes Act, with the White House’s efforts.
President Donald Trump arrives in Muskegon, Michigan, for a rally on October 17, 2020. Photo by Shealah Craighead / White House
Yet Trump still hasn’t signed the self-governance bill into law as of early Wednesday afternoon despite widespread and long-running support for the initiative. It’s been a month since S.209 cleared its final hurdle on Capitol Hill and more than 10 days since it was presented to the president.
“As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, we’ve worked to advance legislation in many of these areas. That includes passing the PROGRESS Act, which promotes tribal sovereignty and economic development in Native American communities,” Hoeven said, adding: “During this Congress, we’ve worked to pass and the President has signed a number of Indian Affairs Committee bills into law that advance these priorities, and we look forward to continuing to work together to support Indian Country.”
The Trump re-election campaign didn’t take advantage of the policy announcement either. Despite touting the launch of the Native American “coalition” over the weekend, there are no substantive mentions of Indian Country anywhere on the 2020 website, except for a landing page with no content. A request to communicate with the campaign, lodged a few weeks ago, has gone unanswered.
In comparison, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden released his Indian Country platform back in March, offering detailed policies and promises affecting tribes and their citizens. He updated the plan earlier this month, as the former vice president and his running mate Kamala Harris, the U.S. Senator from California, met with tribal leaders in person.
“Vice President Biden, Senator Harris, we know that you have True Hearts and Good Minds to Restore the Soul of America,” President Rodney Bordeaux of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe wrote in a letter to the campaign. “We must all come together as Americans, and we pledge to work with you to do so when you are elected.”
“You have the full endorsement of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe,” said Bordeaux, who is among hundreds of elected tribal officials and prominent Indian leaders who are backing the Democratic presidential ticket.
Indianz.Com Video: Joe Biden #IndigenousPeoplesDay
And in a stark contrast to Trump, Biden has embraced Indigenous Peoples Day. He issued a statement on October 12 and his campaign hosted a virtual celebration featuring tribal leaders, the two Native women who served in Congress and Native musicians.
“As president, I’ll make tribal sovereignty and upholding our federal trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations the cornerstone of federal Indian policy,” Biden said during the event.
During a campaign rally on Odawa and Potawatomi homelands on Monday, Trump was having none of it. Speaking to supporters in Michigan, he vowed there would be no recognition of Indigenous Peoples Day “as long as I’m president.”
“Who likes that idea? Who likes it?”
The crowd in Muskegon, whose name comes from the Odawa language, responded in a way Trump anticipated. They booed.