Category Archives: Barack Obama

I Read Trump’s Proclamation for Native American Heritage Month So You Don’t Have To.

On Halloween, a really bad day for the dumpster fire that is the Trump Presidency, Our Bronze Creon issued his proclamation that November is Native American Heritage Month.  Traditionally this proclamation is made on the last day in October, and usually it garners little attention.

Little Hands, No Plans

Still, other than his announcement several months back that he had decided to reverse the Obama Administration’s belated halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline, President Trump has had nothing to say about Native American issues.  At a certain level, that is understandable.  The entire presidency is wobbling under the existential threat posed by the Mueller investigation.  But here, as elsewhere, it is worth looking at what Our Bronze Creon has had to say.  And here, as elsewhere, his words and his deeds pale in comparison to those of his predecessors.

Trump’s proclamation begins with a bit of meaningless fluff, noting that “American Indians and Alaska Natives are inextricably linked with the history of the United States.”  Ignoring the many earlier efforts at settlement throughout the Americas, including the Jamestown settlement beginning in 1607, Trump strangely chose to open with the assertion that “Beginning with the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Colony and continuing until the present day, Native American’s contributions are woven deeply into our Nation’s rich tapestry.”  We will give him a pass on that misplaced apostrophe–it is a frustrating mistake my students make as well.  But it is odd, isn’t it, that a President who has expressed such fascination with the Senator from Massachusetts who he has derisively dubbed “Pocahontas” would ignore the English efforts to plant a colony in Virginia?  There was a time in American historical writing when New Englanders, Virginians, and North Carolinians all competed to make their state the birthplace of the United States.  Trump apparently and uncharacteristically has come down with Massachusetts.

His proclamation honored “the contributions and sacrifices” made by Native Americans.  Those contributions included military service, assistance to the first European settlers and, in a sideways glance at the discredited “Iroquois Influence” thesis, the gift of “democratic ideas to our constitutional Framers.” Trump’s predecessors also occasionally mentioned the notion that the United States Constitution and American democracy were influenced or shaped by Native American antecedents, but the number of published scholars who find this view persuasive can be counted on one hand.

As far as his own administration’s policies, the President claimed that

my Administration is committed to tribal sovereignty and self-determination. A great Nation keeps its word, and this Administration will continue to uphold and defend its responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives. The United States is stronger when Indian Country is healthy and prosperous. As part of our efforts to strengthen American Indian and Alaska Native communities, my Administration is reviewing regulations that may impose unnecessary costs and burdens. This aggressive regulatory reform, and a focus on government-to-government consultation, will help revitalize our Nation’s commitment to Indian Country.

This is all highly general.  Nothing specific here at all, and little awareness of what the words he used mean.  Self-determination?  Not much of that thus far, except for a commitment to allow those tribes interested in developing their coal resources, like the Crows, to start digging. There is scant evidence that the Trump administration has any interest in tribal sovereignty, and Interior Department press releases say little more than the President did here: that the government will cut regulations that hold Indian country back.  If you find this a paltry solution to the challenges native peoples face, and the wide range of issues with which they contend, you can request a meeting with the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs by filling out this form right here.  You might want to be a bit flexible in scheduling, as Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s choice to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs has only been on the job for two weeks.

You can look over the posts on this blog, and it will not take you long to see that I have been very critical of the President.  But I wanted to be fair on this, so I read earlier proclamations by Trump’s predecessors of Native American Heritage Month.

Long ago, the first President Bush noted that “before European explorers set foot on the North American continent, this great land has been cultivated and cherished by generations of American Indians. Unbeknownst to their fellowman halfway around the world, these Native people had developed rich, thriving cultures, as well as their own systems of social order. They also possessed a wealth of acquired wisdom and skills in hunting, tracking, and farming — knowledge and skills that would one day prove to be invaluable to traders and settlers from Europe.”  The elder Bush provided some specific examples of great Native American leaders, including Sacajawea, Sequoyah, and Charles Curtis.  And he spoke of his administration’s signal accomplishments in Indian affairs, the founding legislation for the National Museum of the American Indian.  And he looked to the future, too:

During the National American Indian Heritage Month, as we celebrate the fascinating history and time-honored traditions of Native Americans, we also look to the future. Our Constitution affirms a special relationship between the Federal Government and Indian tribes and — despite a number of conflicts, inequities, and changes over the years — our unique government-to-government relationship has endured. In recent years, we have strengthened and renewed this relationship. Today we reaffirm our support for increased Indian control over tribal government affairs, and we look forward to still greater economic independence and self-sufficiency for Native Americans.

Unlike President Trump, Bill Clinton in the final year of his presidency remembered both the accomplishments of native peoples and the consequences they had suffered as a result of the nation’s past policies.  “This month,” he said in November of 2000, “we celebrate the culture and contributions of the first Americans,” but also “remember with sorrow the suffering they endured because of past Federal actions and policies that had long-term and often devastating consequences for Native Americans and their culture.”  Clinton’s presidency was one of importance for native peoples, and he looked forward.  “As the new millennium dawns, there is reason for optimism,” he stated. “During my 1999 New Markets tour of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and my visit to the Navajo Nation in New Mexico in April of this year, I saw firsthand a strength of spirit and hope sweeping through Indian Country.”  He said his administration had worked hard to help native communities “through economic development initiatives and improved education and health care.”  His tone was retrospective.  He was proud of what his administration was done but, conscious that its time was coming to an end, that there was so much more he wished he could do.

We still have much to accomplish, however. While my Administration has worked hard to bridge the digital divide and bring the Information Superhighway to Indian Country, some areas still do not have telephone and power lines. We continue striving to provide American Indians with the tools they need to strengthen family and community life by fighting poverty, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, and domestic violence, and we are working with tribes to improve academic achievement and strengthen tribal colleges.

We are also seeking to ensure that tribal leaders have a voice equal to that of Federal and State officials in addressing issues of concern to all our citizens. I reaffirmed that commitment to tribal sovereignty and self-determination by issuing this month a revised Executive Order on Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments. This order builds on prior actions and strengthens our government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes by ensuring that all Executive departments and agencies consult with Indian tribes and respect tribal sovereignty as the agencies consider policy initiatives that affect Indian communities.

This year, my Administration proposed the largest budget increase ever for a comprehensive Native American initiative for health care, education, infrastructure, and economic development. Just last month, as part of the Department of the Interior appropriations legislation, I signed into law one segment of this budget initiative that includes significant investments for school construction in Indian Country and the largest funding increase ever for the Indian Health Service. These are the kinds of investments that will empower tribal communities to address an array of needs and, ultimately, to achieve a better standard of living.

Back in 1994, when I first met with the tribal leaders of more than 500 Indian nations at the White House, I saw the strength and determination that have enabled Native Americans to overcome extraordinary barriers and protect their hard-won civil and political rights. Since then, by working together, we have established a new standard for Federal Indian policy–one that promotes an effective government-to-government relationship between the Federal Government and the tribes, and that seeks to ensure greater prosperity, self-reliance, and hope for all Native Americans. While we cannot erase the tragedies of the past, we can create a future where all of our country’s people share in America’s great promise.

It is, quite simply, a statement that stands in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s perfunctory proclamation.  George W. Bush’s proclamations, similarly, were brief, but managed to avoid the mailed-in, bored tone of the Trump announcement.  Bush could point to some minor legislative accomplishments, and pledged to preserve the “nation to nation” relationship between the United States and native peoples and sovereignty and self-determination.

His successor, Barack Obama, whose presidency was indeed significant for its accomplishments in Indian Country, used his proclamations to set an agenda and highlight all it had done.  In 2012, for instance, President Obama mentioned the Cobell settlement and the Hearth Act, important achievements. In 2013 he recognized native contributions and accomplishments, but also “the painful history Native Americans have endured — a history of violence, marginalization, broken promises, and upended justice.  There was a time,” he continued,  “when native languages and religions were banned as part of a forced assimilation policy that attacked the political, social, and cultural identities of Native Americans in the United States.” Despite these hard-hearted policies, and “through generations of struggle, American Indians and Alaska Natives held fast to their traditions, and eventually the United States Government repudiated its destructive policies and began to turn the page on a troubled past.”

It is not enough to argue that these differences are matters of style. They are.  But they reflect differences in policy as well.  All presidents state their support for self-determination. They all work to uphold tribal sovereignty, they say.  But few of them think through what those words mean, and contemplate meaningful policies to honor these pledges.  Obama himself was slow to act in important areas.  He acted on Dakota Access only at the last second, and arguably too late to implement policy changes that would not be so easily set aside by President Trump.  But he did have much to point to, and he did so in his last proclamation in 2016.

Over our long shared history, there have been too many unfortunate chapters of pain and tragedy, discrimination and injustice. We must acknowledge that history while recognizing that the future is still ours to write. That is why my Administration remains dedicated to strengthening our government-to-government relationships with tribal nations and working to improve the lives of all our people. Three years ago, I issued an Executive Order establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs to help ensure the Federal Government engages in true and lasting relationships with tribes and promotes the development of prosperous and resilient tribal communities. Last month, I hosted the eighth Tribal Nations Conference and brought tribal leaders together to identify key issues we still face. We have worked to better protect sacred lands and restored many acres of tribal homelands, as well as supported greater representation of indigenous peoples before the United Nations and called for further implementation of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And we have taken steps to strengthen tribal sovereignty in criminal justice matters, including through the Tribal Law and Order Act.

Through the Affordable Care Act and permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, we empowered more Native Americans to access the quality health care they need to live full, healthy lives. Throughout their lives, 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls will experience some form of violence, and in 2013, I signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which allows tribes to prosecute non-Native individuals who commit acts of domestic violence in Indian Country. And through the North American Working Group on Violence Against Indigenous Women and Girls, we are strengthening regional coordination on the rights of women and girls from indigenous communities across the continent.

In recognition of the immeasurable contributions that Native Americans have made to our Nation, we continue to advocate for expanding opportunity across Indian Country. We have supported tribal colleges and universities and worked to return control of education to tribal nations — not only to prepare Native youth for the demands of future employment, but also to promote their own tribal languages and cultures. We are investing in job training and clean-energy projects, infrastructure, and high-speed internet that connects Native American communities to the broader economy. We are connecting more young people and fostering a national dialogue to empower the next generation of Native leaders through the Generation Indigenous initiative. Through, we have also worked to improve coordination and access to Federal services throughout Indian Country. Indian Country still faces many challenges, but we have made significant progress together since I took office, and we must never give up on our pursuit of the ever brighter future that lies ahead.

I have written on this blog about how consequential a presidency I thought Obama’s was for Native American communities. His accomplishments, compared to that of his predecessors, were significant.  He was entirely justified in talking about them in his proclamation. But now, sadly, as we struggle through the first year of a presidency that has been mired in crisis and scandal from the moment it began in January of 2017, that has stirred up racial division in the country and apologized and excused public displays of white supremacy, and that has shown outright hostility to the causes and concerns of peoples of color, the pursuit of that “brighter future” mentioned by President Obama seems to have been set aside.

And that is just one more tragedy of the presidency of Our Bronze Creon, one more component of the electoral nightmare that began last November.  It is one thing for a President to be “unconventional” and, as his dwindling number of supporters argue, to be unconcerned about being “politically correct.”  It is another matter entirely to show, through sins of omission and commission, that he could not possibly care less.

Donald Trump to Native America: Go To Hell

Today comes news that President Donald Trump, the Creon for the new millennium, will sign an executive order authorizing the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.   Before the confirmation of his nominee for Secretary of Interior, before any nomination for a new undersecretary for Indian Affairs at Interior, before any consultation with Native American tribes, before the confirmation of the fool he nominated to head the Energy Department (and who owns stock and sat on the board of the companies most interested in completing Dakota Access),  Our Creon has told America’s Native Peoples, in essence, to go to hell. Damn your protests. Damn your water.  Damn you and your quality of life.  Stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access, meanwhile, was up 4%.

This is disappointing news, but it is not surprising, for Donald Trump is no friend to American Indians, and it looks like his presidency is going to stand in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, in this as in so many other ways. Some have expressed the fear that he will bring back the Termination era.

Little Hands

Barack Obama’s presidency, after all, had been one of great consequence for the nation’s roughly five and a half million Native Americans, and he left large shoes for the man with little hands to fill.

Native peoples voted for Obama in overwhelming numbers, contributing to his landslide victory in 2008 and his reelection in 2012.  President Obama kept the promises he made to Native peoples. He worked with Congress to secure significant increases in funding for the Indian Health Service. He appointed a policy advisor to counsel him on Native American issues, and he held an annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in order to “strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.” He signed legislation settling at long last the notorious Cobell case, involving the government’s terrible mismanagement of individual Indian trust accounts, and implemented a land buy-back program that has returned more than half a million acres to tribal control. And when President Obama signed legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, it included a new provision allowing tribes to arrest and prosecute non-Indians who committed acts of domestic violence against Native American women, a major problem when courts had held in the past that tribal governments lacked the power to prosecute non-Indians on reservations.  The bipartisan HEARTH Act, signed by President Obama in 2012, allowed tribal governments additional control over their lands. And in 2010, he announced his support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, allowing the United States to join the rest of the world community in a statement affirming the rights of native peoples to live their lives in their own way under institutions of their own choosing.  Read it, if you have not done so already.

As was his wont, President Obama was always cautious.  Too cautious for many of us. He took his time in intervening at Standing Rock, but the Army Corps of Engineers placed a hold on construction of the controversial pipeline while the project was given further review.  In this, as in so many areas of his presidency, President Obama did not go as far as many of his supporters wanted.  Construction might resume, as the thousands of protestors at Standing Rock pointed out.  Still, despite his caution, the record of accomplishment was a significant one.

I am not sure if the steps President Obama took, and the recent publication by the Army Corps of Engineers of its intent to begin the environmental impact process, will be adequate to stave off Our Creon’s executive order.  If you know environmental law, I would love to hear and learn from you.

Because I am not sure what will happen next.  I am not optimistic. And that I am not optimistic really bums me out, because there are a hell of a lot of problems out there that sane political leaders from our two major parties might be able to solve. If they wanted to.  It is a choice, really.  Solve them or not.  But no excuses. Our Creon has said nothing about Indian affairs. Perhaps, despite his record and the racial vitriol his campaign generated, there is room for those who know the issues to work together.  Sometimes I think so.  Ryan Zinke, who Trump nominated to head the Interior Department, made a point of reaching out to Native American communities in his home state of Montana during his brief congressional career.  Collaboration and cooperation between the federal government and Native nations is not only sound policy; it’s the law.  But Zinke did it, and some Native Americans appreciated his efforts.

Of course the Republicans’ promise to repeal Obamacare, aggressively exploit fossil fuels in Indian country, and drastically cut federal spending all bode ill for Native American communities.

But Our Creon campaigned in part on a promise to restore the nation’s aging infrastructure.  He could fulfill a campaign promise and aid Native nations by pushing through Congress a program to repair and replace roads, bridges, and dams on Indian reservations.

Senators and representatives from states with large Native American populations have urged caution in repealing the Affordable Care Act, noting that the progress made in reducing the still gaping health disparities between Native Americans and non-natives were indeed significant and much work remains to be done.

Republicans who supported their candidate’s call for “law and order” might support additional legislation to protect Native American communities, especially women and children, from domestic violence.

And Republicans who favor a smaller federal government might recognize the virtues of supporting the inherent sovereignty of Native American nations and cooperate with Democrats in providing them the resources they need to govern their communities, develop their economies, and tackle the myriad challenges they face.  This could happen.  But the initiative certainly will not come from the Executive Branch.

President Obama left office with significant achievements but with much in the realm of Indian affairs unsettled.  The new president has already weighed in on Dakota Access.  But there are many other challenges that still must be confronted.  Native peoples, for instance, will continue to face concentrated conservative assaults on important and successful pieces of legislation like the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. Poverty and a lack of opportunity in Indian Country remain vexing challenges to policy makers and tribal leaders alike. Racial violence remains a problem, with a “Red Lives Matter” movement slowly growing in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter campaign against police brutality.  And, of course, the slow burning insults of cultural appropriation and the use of Native American symbols and images as offensive mascots for sports teams continues.  Congress, in recent years, has found bipartisan support for programs and policies that have helped to close, ever-so-slowly, the enormous gaps between Native peoples and non-native peoples in health, education, and welfare, and President Obama played an immensely important role in that. We might have hoped that this slow but steady progress of the last eight years not be abandoned by our leaders.  But today’s unilateral and aggressive action makes that hope seem ever so remote.

The Presidential Debates and Native American Rights

Neither Governor Pence nor Senator Kaine had anything to say about the rights of native people, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the challenges faced by Native communities, and that is unlikely to change in either of the two remaining scheduled presidential debates.  It is worthwhile, then, to read the party platforms and compare the Republicans’ proposals resting upon commercial development in Indian Country and the elimination of federal “red tape” that makes this development difficult (see pages 36 and 37 of the Party’s platform) and the Democrats much  fuller menu of proposals:

We will restore tribal lands by continuing to streamline the land-into-trust process and recognize the right of all tribes to protect their lands, air, and waters.

 We will continue to work on a government-to-government basis to address chronic underfunding, and provide meaningful resources and financial investments that will empower American Indian tribes through increased economic development and infrastructure improvements on tribal lands.

We will strengthen the operation of tribal housing programs, and reauthorize the Indian Housing Block Grant Program. We will increase affordable and safe housing and fight to significantly reduce homelessness on and off Indian reservations, especially among Native youth and veterans.

We will invest in Indian education from early childhood through higher education. We will fully fund the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), strengthen self-determination to enable culturally-tailored learning unique to each tribal nation, and help to recruit and retain qualified teachers for Native learners. Democrats will continue to support President Obama’s Generation Indigenous initiative that has made important strides in promoting new investments and increased engagement with American Indian youth, including by continuing efforts to reform the BIE to provide students attending BIE-funded schools with a world-class culturally-based education. We also support the elimination of school and sports mascots that reflect derogatory stereotypes and that perpetuate racism.

We will strengthen tribal sovereignty and tribal jurisdiction by enacting laws and policies that enhance the ability of Indian nations to govern their territories, keep their communities safe, and prosecute crimes committed on tribal lands.

We will build on the important provisions in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which reaffirmed the right of Indian tribes to prosecute perpetrators regardless of race who commit domestic violence on tribal lands. Democrats will continue to work to address criminal justice gaps that undermine the safety of tribal communities. And we will back these efforts through robust investments in effective tribal law enforcement and tribal courts.

We believe that health care is a core federal trust responsibility, and we support a robust expansion of the health care provided by the Indian Health Service. We will work to fully fund the Indian Health Service, Tribal, and Urban Indian health care system and to ensure that all American Indians have adequate, safe, and affordable access to primary care providers, including oral health, mental health practitioners, and substance abuse treatment options.

We acknowledge the past injustices and the misguided, harmful federal and state policies and actions based on outdated and discredited values and beliefs that resulted in the destruction of the Indian nations’ economies, social, and religious systems, the taking of their lands, and the creation of intergenerational trauma that exists to this day. We believe that we have a moral and profound duty to honor, respect, and uphold our sacred obligation to the Indian nations and Indian peoples.

We will manage for tribal sacred places, and empower tribes to maintain and pass on traditional religious beliefs, languages, and social practices without fear of discrimination or suppression.

We also believe that Native children are the future of tribal nations and that the Indian Child Welfare Act is critical to the survival of Indian culture, government, and communities and must be enforced with the statutory intent of the law.

We will strengthen Indian voting rights, including improved access to polling locations. We will build on federal programs to reduce the disproportionate incarceration of American Indian and Alaska Native men and women, reduce disparities in prison sentencing, protect the religious rights of Native prisoners, reduce barriers to prisoner reentry, and offer access to housing and employment upon reentry.

We are committed to principles of environmental justice in Indian Country and we recognize that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles. We call for a climate change policy that protects tribal resources, protects tribal health, and provides accountability through accessible, culturally appropriate participation and strong enforcement. Our climate change policy will cut carbon emission, address poverty, invest in disadvantaged communities, and improve both air quality and public health.

We support the tribal nations efforts to develop wind, solar, and other clean energy jobs. We will engage in meaningful and productive consultation with Tribal Leaders, and will host a White House Tribal Nations Conference annually bringing together cabinet and senior level federal officials to gather input from Tribal Nations when formulating federal policy impacting tribes. Democrats believe that American Indian/Alaska Natives shall be represented in the federal government to properly reflect their needs and will work to appoint American Indian/Alaska Natives to key positions, including retaining a senior level policy position in the White House Domestic Policy Council.

We will strengthen the White House Council on Native American Affairs. Democrats will increase engagement with American Indians/Alaska Natives living outside of tribal communities. Democrats also support efforts for self-governance and self-determination of Native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians are the indigenous, aboriginal people of Hawai’i whose values and culture are the foundation of the Hawaiian Islands. We support proactive actions by the federal government to enhance Native Hawaiian culture, health, language, and education. We recognize and honor the contributions and sacrifices made in service to our country by Native Hawaiians.”

The differences are significant and telling.