Tribes Seek More Inclusion and Action From U.S. Officials

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was a quick trip for U.S. With stops for Interior Secretary Deb Haland to explore desert scrub near U.S.-Mexico borders and marvel at the Organ Mountains, before taking in life in one of the oldest settlements that straddled a historic trading route,

Haaland’s recent time in New Mexico and West Texas has highlighted the conservation work that is being made to preserve parts of our borderlands.

But it also marked an opportunity for Haaland — as head of the agency that has broad oversight of tribal affairs — to deliver on promises to meet with Native American tribes that have grown increasingly frustrated about the federal government’s failure to include them when making decisions about land management, energy development or the protection of sacred sites.

Haaland’s selection as the first Native American to serve in the position opened a door for tribes who pointed to a history fraught with broken promises.

“I want the era where tribes have been on the back burner to be over, and I want to make sure that they have real opportunities to have a seat at the table,” Haaland said on March 17, 2021, her first day on the job.

Haaland has since met with nearly 130 of the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes as she seeks to overhaul a federal system that has limited Native American relations to a check-the-box exercise.

While some tribal members believe her ambitions are admirable they remain skeptical that they will be realized. They say they still have not had meaningful conversations with key decision-makers or the federal government.

Haaland’s department has developed a plan for improving formal consultations with tribes and established an advisory committee that will aid with communication once it’s up and running. Haaland said that her goal is to make consulting a part of her tenure.

Tribes have had some success in that they felt heard after the Biden administration restored Bears Ears National Monument’s boundaries. Also, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled an Environmental Impact Statement which allowed for an Arizona copper mining operation consultation with tribes, it was a step forward.

However, tribal leaders are still frustrated that their discussions with the federal government has not led to any action.

The Ute Indian Tribe of Utah’s frustration lies in the management of Colorado River Basin as Western States struggle with water shortages due to climate change and megadrought. Tribes were not included in a century-old compact that divvied up the water, and the Ute tribe says it’s seeing the same exclusion now.

The tribe’s Business Committee has spent hours in meetings and preparing formal comments and says it’s tired of having to reiterate its position that the federal government must protect the tribe’s water rights or support development of water infrastructure to serve the reservation.

Committee Chairman Shaun Chapoose said he’s seen proposals, but “actual where-the-rubber-meets-the-road stuff hasn’t occurred yet, and the drought gets worse.”

There are similar sentiments among Navajo Nation lawmakers who are concerned about Haaland’s plans to make oil and gas development off-limits on federal land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

A letter was sent to Haaland by advocacy groups on Thursday. It stated that more should be done for tribes to help her department chart a course forward to preserve culturally-significant areas in northern New Mexico.

According to the Interior Department, more meetings are being planned with the Navajo Nation as well as other tribes in April. Navajo language translators will also be present.

In Nevada, several tribes and the National Congress of American Indians have asked the Interior Department and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to uphold a duty to engage in “robust and adequate” tribal consultation regarding plans for a massive lithium mine at Thacker Pass. So far, the tribes say that hasn’t happened.

In order to make decisions and take action expected to affect them, the Federal Government must consult in good faith and meaningfully with Native American and Alaska Native Tribes under the U.S. Constitution, Treaties and Statutes.

However, a 2019 report from a government watchdog found some federal agencies lacked respect for tribal sovereignty, didn’t have enough resources for consultation or couldn’t always reach tribes.

Tribes also complain that tribes are often brought in after a plan of action has already been established, rather than being included in the planning stages.

“The federal government says all the right words, but their mentality is one in which they are not really doing this in a way that reflects the proper government-to-government relationship that I think tribes are orienting to when they enter into these conversations,” said Justin Richland, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Social Sciences who specializes in Native American law and politics.

Consultation doesn’t always lead to action or create any substantive rights on the part of the tribes, making it somewhat of a “toothless tiger,” said Dylan Hedden-Nicely, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who directs the Native American Law Program at the University of Idaho.

He said it’s reasonable, although incorrect, to think things would move quickly with Haaland — a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico — because she had a base of knowledge about Indian Country when she took the office. Hedden-Nicely stated that the foundations are still being set to bring about real changes.

“It’s not immediate, but it’s going to be worth the wait, I’m hoping,” he said.

During Haaland’s confirmation hearings, Interior staff consulted with tribes on how to improve the process.

“Secretary Haaland and the entire department take our commitment to strengthening tribal sovereignty and self-governance seriously, and we have affirmed that robust consultations are the cornerstones of federal Indian policy,” department spokesman Tyler Cherry said in a statement to The Associated Press.

President Joe Biden issued a memo during his first month in office, reaffirming previous executive orders on tribal consultation and directing federal agencies to spell out how they’ll comply. That set in motion Haaland’s efforts to give tribal leaders a direct line of communication to the Interior Department.

A congressional committee is scheduled next week to consider a bill by Democratic U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona that would codify a framework for tribal consultation that supporters say would insulate the process from changes in administration.

It is a difficult task to pass the legislation. Some tribes are trying to make sure that there is a way for both federal officials to consult with tribal leaders and for them to also start discussions. Similar legislation was introduced previously and failed.

Amber Torres is the chairperson of Walker River Paiute Tribe (Nevada). She believes consultation should not be limited to a letter or an email.

“I want true, meaningful, face-to-face dialogue with a timeline, intent and follow-up and next steps agreed by both parties,” she said. “Making the tribal consultation process a law is long overdue, and it would be a step in the right direction to ensure tribal nation sovereignty is protected.”


Fonseca reported out of Flagstaff, Arizona.

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