WASHINGTON – With Election Day fast approaching, President Donald Trump released his first policy road map for Native American communities on Oct. 20, roughly two weeks after Democratic candidate Joe Biden unveiled his own policy agenda for tribal nations.
Inland Northwest tribal leaders questioned the timing of the Trump administration’s move, pointing out that the president had four years to outline his priorities for Indian Country. But two senior White House officials told The Spokesman-Review the plan simply spells out principles that have guided the administration’s policy throughout Trump’s first term.
“Many of the items in the plan are things that have been priorities for the president and the administration through the first term, but the president and the team wanted to make sure that there’s a clear vision for what a second-term agenda and priorities would be,” said Doug Hoelscher, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.
The White House document – titled “Putting America’s First Peoples First” – lays out five “core principles” that guide the administration’s agenda: respecting tribal sovereignty, promoting safe communities, improving infrastructure and the economy, honoring heritage and improving education, and delivering better health.
Jennie Lichter, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, said the plan “reflects four years’ worth of dialogue, both internal and external, and the way that we have been approaching our tribal partnerships.”
“We were really thrilled for the opportunity to put it on paper in a new structure and share it with the world,” Lichter said, “but it’s not a new agenda. This is the president’s agenda. It’s been our to-do list for quite a long time now.”
The Trump plan carries the emphatic subtitle “Forgotten No More!” But Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Business Council, said the timing of its release makes the document seem like an afterthought.
“The first impression I got was, ‘Why now?’ ” Cawston said. “Why did they, all of a sudden, come up with a document addressing the federal-tribal relationships and not at the beginning of the Trump administration?”
‘You don’t look at it as being genuine’
Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe, said she finds it hard to square the new policy document with the president’s rhetoric, including derisively calling a Democratic senator “Pocahontas” during a 2017 White House event to honor Navajo World War II veterans and recent remarks on the campaign trail.
“It’s a document to try to get some support in the election,” Evans said. “If they say it’s been in the works, but in the meantime there’s all this negativity out there, you don’t look at it as being genuine.”
At an Oct. 17 rally in Muskegon, Michigan, Trump lambasted Biden for supporting the movement to rename Columbus Day, a national holiday established in 1937 to honor the Italian explorer who killed and enslaved Native people.
“He wants to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Trump said, drawing boos from the crowd. “What the heck are you saying? … Not as long as I’m president.”
Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, released their “plan for tribal nations” on Oct. 8. The Biden platform notably pledges to address climate change and ensure voting rights, while Trump’s does not. But the two candidates’ plans differ less in their top-line priorities than in their level of detail.
Evans said she likes the “core principles” in the president’s plan, but the lack of specifics makes her doubt the administration’s commitment to follow through on its promises.
“The Trump plan is very high-level, no detail on how they’re going to accomplish things,” Evans said. “It makes me wonder if it’s just put out there as a document that no one will ever take action on.”
In contrast, Evans said she appreciates that Biden’s plan specifies actions he would take as president – including restarting the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, which the Trump administration discontinued – and mentions the federal government’s trust responsibility to protect tribal treaty rights, while the Trump plan does not.
The Biden plan also pledges to appoint Indigenous people to senior positions in his administration, to “nominate judges who understand federal Indian law,” and to make it easier to place land into trust.
Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat who helped craft the Biden plan, said the document was the product of meetings with tribal leaders, educators and past administration officials.
“We went through it with a fine-toothed comb,” said Haaland, an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo who in 2018 became one of the first two Native women elected to Congress.
“We need a leader who will live up to the promises made to Indian tribes through the centuries,” she said. “Right now, so many of our tribal communities are suffering from lack of health care, lack of infrastructure, and a lot of these disparities have been highlighted by the pandemic.”
Biden has gained the endorsements of more than 200 tribal leaders from around the country, including Evans. A handful of tribal leaders have endorsed Trump, including the chairman of the Crow Tribe and vice president of the Navajo Nation.
Different plans for tribal communities
Lichter and Hoelscher cited the Trump administration’s efforts to combat the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, including the president’s executive order in November 2019 that established a task force to develop a government-wide response to the problem.
“The president prides himself on tackling challenges that other administrations of both parties overlooked,” Hoelscher said. “The issue of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaskan Natives is a topic that no president had formally addressed in a proclamation.”
In a proclamation in October 2016, President Barack Obama addressed the disproportionate rates of violence Indigenous people face and cited bills he signed into law in 2010 and 2013 to strengthen tribal law enforcement and allow tribes to prosecute domestic violence committed by non-Natives on reservations.
On Oct. 10, Trump signed into law two bills – cosponsored by Haaland and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside – that aim to address the problem by improving law enforcement practices and establishing a commission to improve coordination between federal and tribal authorities. In July, the administration also opened the first of seven planned offices to investigate cold cases of missing or murdered Native people.
Native communities have been hit especially hard by COVID-19, and Hoelscher pointed to the $8 billion in funds Congress sent to tribes in emergency spending packages passed in March, calling it “the largest single investment in Indian Country in our nation’s history.”
“That was good,” Evans said. “Both Republicans and Democrats (in Congress), they demanded it, otherwise we would have been forgotten. I attribute that more to Congress than to the Trump administration.”
After tribal governments sought $20 billion in aid in negotiations, the White House reportedly opposed tribes getting any direct relief. Lawmakers ultimately settled on $8 billion, which tribes will need to spend by the end of the year unless Congress extends the deadline.
Brian Gunn, an attorney and federal lobbyist for the Colville Tribes, said one of the most tangible changes for tribes under the Trump administration has been a slowdown in the Interior Department processing applications to put “fee” land bought on the open market into trust, a process with important implications for tribes’ ability to, among other things, provide housing and use natural resources.
“If the administration continues another four years, I think you’re going to see a continued slow-walk of fee-to-trust activity, which is very important to tribes,” Gunn said. “Because this administration hasn’t really had a focused, specific Indian policy, it’s hard to predict what they may or may not support, but I do think it would be four more years of tribes not getting progress on certain things that they’ve been fighting for during the last four years.”
Another priority both Trump’s and Biden’s plans share is improving health outcomes, especially through the Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing health care to tribal members, but the two candidates have different approaches to doing that.
“This is sort of your classic big, nationwide, big-dollar government program that we do think can run better in a number of ways,” Lichter said. “And we think that the Trump approach of trying to cut red tape and offer more choices and better care can really work with IHS as well.”
In 2018, the Trump administration moved to subject people who receive health care through the IHS to a work requirement, arguing that tribes are a race rather than separate governments, a key tenet of tribal sovereignty. The administration has also sought to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which includes provisions providing ongoing funding for the IHS.
“I think it’s telling that the Trump administration has worked overtime to gut the Affordable Care Act,” Haaland said. “That would do incredible harm to Indian Country.”
The Biden plan, meanwhile, calls for “dramatically increasing funding for IHS and making that funding mandatory.”
Cawston said some of the biggest priorities for the Colville Tribes have to do with natural resources and the environment. The administration has rolled back protections under the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act that he said tribes have relied on to let them weigh in on projects that could affect natural resources.
“A lot of the things that were put into this document almost seem contrary to a lot of their actions throughout these past four years,” he said, pointing to the Trump plan’s mentions of environmental stewardship.
Trump has not spoken publicly about his plan in the week since it was released, although first lady Melania Trump tweeted about it Oct. 21. The president has previously claimed his administration has been a boon for Indian Country, saying during a visit to Phoenix in May, “We’re improving the lives of Native American families and tribes more than any administration has done by far.”
But Evans said she wants to see results.
“Actions speak louder than words,” the Spokane chairwoman said. “It’s unfortunate that we have a leader of the country (whose) words and actions are just showing something totally different than this document with these ‘core principles.’ ”
Cawston said the stakes in this election are high, referring to Trump administration policies that have affected Native people, including a truncated census, threats to sacred land, and downplaying the role of climate change in worsening wildfires.
“I think that for tribes going forward into the future, this is probably one of the most important elections that we’re going to have to deal with in our tribes’ history.
“Looking at the present administration and all the impacts tribes have suffered,” Cawston said. “Four more years of that, I just don’t know where that’s going to go.”
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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