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President Trump uses a hand rail and steps to walk down a dirt roadway during a visit to a site near the U.S. border with Mexico on January 12, 2021. Photo by: Shealah Craighead / White House
Impeachment won’t stop Donald Trump from leaving impact on Indian Country
Thursday, January 14, 2021
Indianz.Com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Donald Trump is on his way out of the White House but his administration is taking extraordinary steps to shape and influence life in Indian Country for years and possibly decades to come.

Since the November election that saw historic numbers of voters reject Trump, the Department of the Interior has announced an unprecedented number of policy changes, affecting everything from Indian land records to tribal transportation issues. In January alone, five consultations sessions have been scheduled — including one taking place only a day before Democrat Joe Biden is sworn into office.

But the efforts extend further than administrative rules. After the election, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced his intent to appoint a Trump loyalist to the National Indian Gaming Commission, a move that ensures Republicans control two out of three seats at the NIGC for the near future, even though Biden will be serving as president.

And then there’s the federal judiciary. With his foot out the door, Trump nominated a staffer for a friendly Republican lawmaker to serve on the U.S. Court of Claims, which frequently hears cases affecting tribal treaties, land claims and breaches of the federal trust responsibility.

The flurry of activity is not entirely unusual during a presidential transition. In late 2016 and early 2017, for instance, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began consultation on a key economic development proposal, one that was — and still is — widely supported by tribes and their advocates.

But the level to which the outgoing administration has been outlining new proposals for Indian Country is unheard of in the age of self-determination and respect for tribal sovereignty. The move to stack the deck at the NIGC, for example, comes after the agency that oversees the $34.6 billion Indian gaming industry was all but ignored by Trump and the White House over the past four years.

Yet even as they attempt to impose their own agenda on the first Americans, Trump, who was just impeached for a second time in connection with his role in the deadly violence at the U.S. Capitol last week, and his team can’t resist rehashing old wounds. When asked about their role in ensuring an orderly transfer of power to Biden, a key White House official decided it was time to take a shot at Barack Obama, accusing the popular two-term president of not even leaving behind a list of tribal leader contacts.

“We want to make sure we leave things better than we found it,” Doug Hoelscher, the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, which acts as a liaison between tribal governments and the president, told tribal leaders only a day after the criminal riot at the nation’s capital led to his boss’s impeachment.

Trump’s last-minute entanglements, however, won’t make life any better for Deb Haaland, who is making history as the first Native person to serve in a modern-day presidential cabinet. Should she be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior, the Democratic lawmaker, who won a second term in office representing New Mexico’s 1st congressional district, will be inheriting a bureaucratic mess from her predecessor.

One of the biggest blunders of the last four years has been a proposal to update the Licensed Indian Traders (25 CFR 140). Early on in the Trump era, tribes were extremely encouraged when the BIA advanced new rules aimed at keeping Indian money in Indian hands, instead of having revenues go to states and local governments in the form of taxes.

But after David Bernhardt joined Interior as Deputy Secretary in August 2017, the popular proposal was left in regulatory limbo. No reason was ever given but it quickly became clear that his arrival in Washington had something to do with it.

“I’m not convinced that we are moving forward with those,” Bernhardt told tribal leaders in October of that year, only two months after coming on board. Just to keep matters confusing, he added: “I’m not convinced that we won’t.”

Indianz.Com Video by Kevin Abourezk: David Bernhardt on Dual Taxation

Several months later, Interior suddenly put a hold on all land-into-trust applications in Alaska, even though tribes there won a key court decision in their favor that has never been overturned or changed by Congress. Almost two years later, there has been no resolution, allowing the Trump administration to dictate an Indian policy outcome without involving the courts or the legislative branch.

With Haaland in charge of Interior, the Biden administration intends to undo the numerous missteps of the current era. The president-elect’s Plan for Tribal Nations, for example, promises to lift the moratorium on tribes restoring their homelands in Alaska.

Other actions will be all but impossible to roll back. Should Bernhardt, who rose to the position of Secretary of the Interior after the abrupt departure of Ryan Zinke, follow through on installing Jeannie Hovland at the NIGC before noon on January 20, there appears to be little Haaland or Biden could do about it.

“Hovland is well qualified to be a member of the National Indian Gaming Commission by virtue of her extensive background and experience in a broad spectrum of Native American issues,” the Federal Register notice signed by Bernhardt on December 8 reads. According to her resume, Hovland, who is a citizen of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, lacks a college degree.

Likewise, the nomination of Terrance M. Andrews, more commonly known as Mike Andrews from the Republican staff on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to the federal bench is out of Biden’s hands even though Democrats are set to gain the upper hand in the chamber on January 20. His nomination was resubmitted to the U.S. Senate earlier this month, giving the Republican majority another chance to confirm the legislative aide who once acknowledged it was harder to get tribal bills across the finish line in the Trump years. Andrews is non-Indian.

Still, as January 20 quickly approaches, there are signs of hope and excitement in Indian Country. Though the violence at the U.S. Capitol and threats of further violence have put a stop to in-person activities, dozens of tribal citizens joined a virtual call on Tuesday night to prepare for the new era.

“You all made the difference for this election and you’re the reason we are celebrating,” Theresa Sheldon, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes who serves as Associate Director of Coalitions for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said during the event.

As for Haaland, she’s ready to the “fierce” advocate that Indian Country has been seeking for the last four years. The Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, is the federal agency with the most trust and treaty responsibilities.

“When I accepted the nomination to be Secretary of Interior, I did so on the shoulders of my ancestors & all who have come before me in this fight,” Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, said in a post on social media on Sunday. “I stand ready to serve & address the issues facing our country, public lands, & tribal nations. I look forward to the work ahead.”

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