Barack Obama’s presidency had been one of great consequence to the nation’s five and a half million Native Americans, and he left large shoes for the angry ogre with little hands to fill. Trump’s presidency, I wrote a couple of days after his inauguration, left me feeling depressed “because I am not sure what will happen next.” I said at the time that I was 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.”
Impeached twice, the considerable damage he has done limited by incompetence, laziness, and Covid 19, it is time to assess the consequences of the Trump Administration for Indigenous/Native American peoples.
After four demoralizing years, it appears that the Trump Administration will slink off into history as it began, with an assault on lands deemed sacred to Indigenous peoples. A couple of days ago, Apache Stronghold filed suit against the Trump Administration to stop the transfer of Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagoteel, to a multinational mining operation. This transfer of lands sacred to the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache tribes, and many others, is being rushed through before the Trump Presidency comes to a close. The mine will create a crater two miles across and one thousand feet deep. And it is certainly not the only instance of the Trump Administration threatening lands sacred to Native American peoples. When Tohono O’Odham people peacefully protested last fall “the ongoing desecration of sacred and burial sites by the U. S. Customs and Border Protection’s construction of a border wall in their homelands,” federal agents attacked them with tear gas and violent removal.
None of this is surprising. One of Donald Trump’s first acts as President, after all, was to sign an executive order authorizing the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, cutting underneath burial grounds and lands sacred to the Oceti Sakowim at the Standing Rock Reservation . President Trump ignored the legitimate arguments raised in the stunning protest movement mounted by Water Protectors against DAPL, and did nothing to stop corporate thugs and state and local law enforcement officials from targeting them with extraordinary violence. (In all fairness, the Obama Administration did too little, too late, to stop DAPL, and Hillary Clinton was hardly an outspoken opponent).
Trump also showed at the outset of his administration that he had no interest in consultation with Native American communities as required under the entirely uncontroversial Executive Order 13175 issued by President Bill Clinton in early 2000. You can complain all you want, Trump suggested, because he was not listening.
Trump’s interest in Indian Affairs picked up when it intersected with the concerns of his corporate allies. But there was as well the President’s strange fetish for Andrew Jackson, in whom some of Trump’s most servile advisers suggested he might see parallels. Trump’s affection for Jackson is clear–a portrait of Jackson hung in his Oval Office and, in a tweet, he thanked #POTUS7 for his service to the country.
What service was that? The Battle of New Orleans? The slaughter of Creeks at Horseshoe Bend? Perhaps. Or was it Jackson’s distaste for the 1st Amendment in the form of his support for the congressional “Gag Rule,” or restricting abolitionist materials from the US Mail? Did Trump like Jackson’s desire to go medieval on the Nullifiers in South Carolina?
Maybe it was because Trump embraced the myth that Jackson was an outsider, the people’s candidate, a kindred spirit of sorts, even if based on a flawed historical analogy. Perhaps the ruinous Bank War inspired him, where Jackson’s personal spite and lack of knowledge about how banking worked led him to destroy the economy. Or Jackson’s brutal embrace of majority rule whatever the consequences?
The sheer number of biographies he has inspired is evidence enough that for many people Jackson is a compelling figure, but Trump took his Hickory Crush a couple of steps farther. On the Ides of March, 2017, Trump visited Jackson’s plantation and stood silently in salute at Jackson’s grave. That same day, a federal court in Hawaii struck down the president’s second attempt to ban Muslim immigrants from a handful of countries. Mike Huckabee, the dad joke-telling Wormtongue of GOP politics, said that like Jackson when confronted by a Court that challenged a fundamental assumption of his Indian policy, Trump should resist the judicial branch of the federal government. Huckabee became, in effect, the first person in the 21st century to see Jackson’s dismissal of the Court’s authority as admirable, and created the impression that this is a presidency run by men who have little knowledge of this nation’s past and less regard for the historic sufferings of its people of color. Trump embraced the image of a president inextricably tied to the suffering he caused Native Americans.
Obviously, President Obama’s decision to replace Andrew Jackson on the Twenty-Dollar Bill with Harriet Tubman could not be allowed to stand. One obvious reason was that for Trump, anything favored by Obama was automatically worth opposing. Second, Jackson was white, and Tubman black. Trump opposed Obama’s decision, and Jackson will stay on the bill until after Trump leaves office. A more astute politician, not to mention a more sensitive human being, might have acknowledged the costs of Jackson’s policies–policies that were popular at the time, and from which millions of non-Indian Americans continue to reap the benefits. A more historically aware President might have talked about the complexities of the past. But that was not Donald Trump’s style. He showed over this term that he was not a deep thinker. Shortly before visiting Jackson’s “Hermitage,” after all, Trump had congratulated the long-dead Frederick Douglass for the good work he is doing, Trump showed no signs that he has any interest in or knowledge of America’s troubled past. And that was especially the case when it comes to the victims of American history.
Indeed, in his annual Columbus Day proclamations, Trump went out of his way to ignore the suffering caused by the arrival of Europeans in America. Columbus was a hero to Trump, and any criticism was to the President the despicable ranting of elites who hated America. In his final proclamation this past October, Trump broadened his defense of Columbus to embrace all historical figures subjected to the “Cancel culture” of people who “hate America.” The President said that
These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister. They seek to squash any dissent from their orthodoxy. We must not give in to these tactics or consent to such a bleak view of our history.
Therefore, the President said, we will squash the activists. We will punish you if you suggest that our history is something other than goodness and light. And Donald Trump emphasized that he will save the western heritage from the scholarly barbarians at the gates. He mentioned that earlier in 2020, for example, he signed Executive Orders punishing acts of vandalism against monuments on federal property, calling for the creation of a “National Garden of American Heroes,” and establishing the “1776 Commission,” which, he wrote, “will encourage our educators to teach our children about the miracle of American history and honor the founding.” What’s more, President Trump pointed out that in September of that year he signed an Executive Order intended “to root out the teaching of racially divisive concepts from the Federal workplace, many of which are grounded in the same type of revisionist history that is trying to erase Christopher Columbus from our national heritage.” Much was at stake, the President said. “Together, we must safeguard our history and stop this new wave of iconoclasm by standing against those who spread hate and division.” While states and municipalities around the country began taking steps to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day, the President said that “as long as I’m president,” the United States will never honor the heritage and contributions of Indigenous peoples.
Trump himself did all he could to stoke hatred and division through his treatment of one of his most articulate and powerful critics, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren played right into Trump’s hands by claiming to possess a small fraction of Native American DNA, but she was right to call out the President for his racism. Trump, undeterred, mockingly called Warren “Pocahontas.” So what? I put it this way in February of 2017, when the slur first arose:
For President Trump, it seems, Native American identity can be determined by a quick glance. He looked for certain characteristics and did not see them in the Pequots, or in Senator Warren. Centuries of intermarriage, enslavement, and the complex, messy, and tangled history of native peoples mattered in his determination not a bit. For him, native peoples were individuals with certain easily distinguished racial features, and not members of political entities that possessed an inherent but limited sovereignty that predated the creation of the United States.
But here’s the thing. Too many Americans share Trump’s views about who Indians are and what they ought to be. Too many Americans view Indians as part of the past. Think about the most commonly held stereotypes about Native Americans: What images enter your mind? Ask your friends what they think. Chances are a lot of those images come from the past.
And when we speak of Native Americans as being part of the past, we are aiding in an ongoing colonial project which erases native peoples in the present. And if they are viewed as part of the past, or inauthentic, it becomes easier to dismiss the legitimacy of Native Americans, as individuals and as members of semi-sovereign nations, as being out of time and place and, as a consequence, irrelevant. It becomes easier to ignore the very real problems of inequality and injustice in Indian Country; it becomes permissible to cheer for a football team with a racist name; or to silently assent to a President’s decision to authorize a pipeline through lands that a Native American community deems sacred. It also makes it possible to call into question the sovereign right of native nations to develop their economies, protect their lands, and against immense odds preserve their cultures. When the President casts Indians as part of the past, he makes it more difficult for many Americans to recognize the importance of native peoples’ calls for justice today.
The Pocahontas name-calling, in this sense, was inherently destructive, and not just to Senator Warren.
Trump did have some legislative accomplishments. In January of 2018, he signed into law the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017. The legislation granted federal recognition to six Virginia Indigenous nations: The Monacan, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi, and the Rappahannock. This bill had widespread bipartisan support and would have become law no matter who was president. This was a long time coming. He also signed Savana’s Act and the Not Invisible Act in October 2020. This legislation was designed to counter violence against Native American women. It followed from the formation in November of 2019 by Executive Order the “Operation Lady Justice Task Force.” Trump declared that May 5th is “Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives Awareness Day.“ During Trump’s years in office, Americans finally began to follow this issue, memorialized with the Twitter hashtags “#MMIW” and “#MMIWG.”
Little came of the effort. At a listening session last June, the Trump Administration unsurprisingly demonstrated that its real commitment to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women is shallow and so limited as to be effectively meaningless. As Native Americans who attended the session pointed out, the President’s approval of pipe lines and other projects brings large numbers of non-native “man camps” into areas close to Native American communities. Many observers have asserted that a relationship exists between such projects and reports of missing and murdered Native American women and girls. Indeed, Kristin Welch, a community organizer for Menikanaehkem, a Wisconsin group, asserted that cases of violence against Native American women are increased 70% by the presence of these man camps.
Task Force members repeatedly ignored these questions. When asked about the 1978 Oliphant decision, which held that non-Indians can not be held criminally liable for their actions on Indian land by tribal authorities, Task Force Member Marcia Good said that “Oliphant is currently beyond the scope of [Operation Lady Justice] at this time.” Indeed, the Trump Administration called for cuts in funding that have adversely affected policing on reservations, and limited the ability of tribal governments to combat domestic violence and substance abuse. He did nothing to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which permitted tribes a sliver of protection by allowing them to prosecute non-Indians for intimate partner violence committed on reservations.
Without restoring power to Native nations to allow them to prosecute the crimes non-Indians commit against Native American women on reservation land, the Trump Administration has removed from the table what all experts assert is a vital part of any solution to this heart-wrenching problem. President Trump, in other words, supports policies that threaten to exacerbate the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women while permitting no discussion of a critical part of the solution. The Trump Administration seemed interested only in the appearance of action, except when it chose to behave in a destructive manner.
Trump administration officials early in his term reawakened fears that he would bring back the long-discredited federal policy called “Termination” by working to privatize Indian land holding on reservations. He informed the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe that its reservation will be disestablished. Federally-protected lands would be removed from trust status. He stated his opposition to federal programs for Native Americans on the grounds that they were “race-based,” rather than a recognition of Native American tribal sovereignty. Trump disestablished the White House Council on Native American Affairs created by President Obama, and never held a White House Conference for Native American leaders, as his predecessor had done.
In the Courts, the news was mostly bad. Lower court justices delivered an ominous blow to the Indian Child Welfare Act. In Brackeen v. Zinke, a federal district court in Texas found the ICWA unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General and staunch Trump loyalist Ken Paxton intervened in the case, and hoped that the Fifth Circuit would uphold the district court’s ruling. So far Paxton has been disappointed, but the case could eventually arrive at the Supreme Court, where the fortified conservative majority there may find Paxton’s arguments persuasive. They have shown themselves, after all, ready to toss federal laws because the legislation discriminates on the basis of race when white people feel themselves to be the victims.
Congress enacted the ICWA in 1978, an important piece of legislation designed to halt the traumatic removal of native children from their homes through fostering and adoption. The problem was severe. Dakota Sioux at Spirit Lake, about whom I write in Native America, asked the Association of American Indian Affairs to conduct an investigation, and the AAIA reported that of the 1100 Dakotas under the age of 21 who lived at Spirit Lake in 1968, 275 had been removed from their families. In states with large Native American populations, the AAIA found that “child welfare” agencies had removed between 25 and 35 percent of children from their homes. Native peoples organized to halt this highly destructive practice, and the battle for the passage of the ICWA, according to its best historian, “represented one of the most fierce and successful battles for Indian self-determination of the 1970s.” The legislation committed the United States “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families by the establishment of minimum standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which will reflect the unique values of Indian culture.” Native American children, under the legislation, must be placed with family members, with members of their tribe, or with members of another native nation, before they are placed in the care of non-Native American foster parents.
Paxton, and a growing number of conservatives, argue that the law has gone too far. “In practice, the ICWA compels states to disregard the ordinary approach of determining a child’s best interest and to treat Native American foster children differently based on nothing more than their race,” Paxton wrote. “The law gives Indian tribes a trump card to play in any state child-welfare proceeding, allowing them to dictate outcomes whenever a child is or even could be a member of a tribe.” For Paxton, it’s a states rights issue. “If no biological family members can be found, the law requires state courts and agencies to make a priority of adoption by other ethnically Native American families.”
“Native American children, strictly because of their race, thus can be kept apart from foster families eager to adopt them. If federal law treated any other class of people this way, it would be roundly condemned, and rightly so. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 10,529 American Indian/Alaska Native children were in foster care in fiscal 2017.
Some claim that the ICWA relies on a political designation, rather than a racial one, because a tribe is a political entity. But no political or cultural link to a tribe must exist for the Indian Child Welfare Act to apply to a given child. Tribal eligibility — determined in virtually every case by genetic ancestry — is sufficient. The idea that the ICWA relies on a political designation rather than a racial one is further undermined by the fact that if no family from the child’s tribe volunteers to adopt, any Native American from any tribe, anywhere, takes automatic precedence over a non-Native American couple. This requirement relies on racist and reductionist assumptions about the supposed interchangeability of drastically different tribal cultures.
You would not know it from Paxton’s piece, but his opinions are those of a distinct minority. Twenty-one state attorneys-general, along with thirty child welfare organizations, 325 tribal governments and fifty-seven tribal organizations have expressed their support for the Indian Child Welfare Act. The law, they write, “was designed to reverse decades of cultural insensitivity and political bias that had resulted in one-third of all Indian children being forcibly removed by the government from their families, their tribes and their cultural heritage.” The law was a signal achievement, and it has done its job. The ICWA ensures the “stability and cohesion of Tribal families, Tribal communities and Tribal cultures,” in the face or organizations and entities that have sought their destruction.
Still, this is exactly the sort of case I fear the Supremes have been waiting for. Paxton’s arguments, though they rely more on the 10th Amendment to the Constitution than a strict construction of Article I’s “Indian Commerce” clause, dovetail nicely with the reasoning deployed by Justice Thomas, about which I have written here. And that is what makes this case so ominous for native peoples, who throughout much of their history have seen their children targeted in government efforts to extinguish their identities as members of native nations.
The solid conservative majority Trump placed on the Supreme Court will affect Native nations for decades to come. I fully expect in the coming months that court will blast tribal sovereignty in a case involving tribal police powers.
Early in 2016, tribal police officer James Saylor pulled up behind a pick-up truck parked along the side of a road on the Crow Reservation in Montana. It was 1:00AM, and Saylor stopped to see if anyone in the vehicle needed assistance. Inside the truck Saylor found Joshua James Cooley and his small child. Saylor could see that Cooley’s eyes were bloodshot and watery. He could see two weapons in the truck’s front seat. Saylor concluded that Cooley was non-Indian on the basis of his appearance but also that he could not be allowed to drive in his current condition. Saylor took Cooley into custody, placed him and his child in the backseat of his patrol car, and called in for the county sheriff to take the non-Indian suspect into custody. When Saylor went back to the truck to retrieve the keys, he saw in plain sight clear evidence of methamphetamine use and possession.
Cooley was indicted on federal drug charges, but the criminal court threw out all the evidence acquired through Officer Saylor’s search of the vehicle. The district court and the Ninth Circuit agreed that all evidence obtained by Officer Saylor when he entered the vehicle to get the keys was an illegal search and seizure and violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Now the case is on its way to the Supreme Court, where Cooley’s attorney has argued that “the authority of a tribal officer on a state highway that passed through a reservation is limited.” A tribal officer may “initiate a traffic stop, but when doing so,” his authority is limited “to determining whether the violator is native or non-native. If the violator is native, the officer may proceed with his investigation. If the violator is non-native, the tribal officer’s authority is limited to detaining the violator for delivery to state or federal authorities.”
Think about this. You are a Native American police officer, patrolling your reservation in the middle of the night. You see a vehicle pulled off to the side. Though the driver is cooperative, and opens the window, you see cause for alarm. He seems impaired, to begin with, and then there are the guns. And the one-year-old child. It is not hard to imagine that Saylor felt it necessary to investigate further.
Yet every court has agreed thus far with Cooley. United States v. Cooley will provide new justice Amy Coney Barrett her first chance to rule on a Native American case.
The United States argued in its petition for a writ of certiorari that the Ninth Circuit decision to throw out all the evidence obtained by Saylor is an “unprecedented, unwarranted, and unworkable curtailment of the sovereignty of Indian tribes,” that “precludes tribal officers from routine law-enforcement activities necessary to protect both the public and the public at large from dangerous and criminal activity within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation.”
What do you think? Do you agree with the US Solicitor General, or with Mr. Cooley? Both sides agree that Indian tribes have no criminal jurisdiction over non-natives, but is it possible to distinguish the ability to arrest and prosecute from the need to uphold public safety on already under-policed Indian reservations? The Court’s precedents show clearly that tribal law enforcement possesses the authority to detain suspects and hand them over to state or federal authorities, which Officer Saylor did. But what about the evidence uncovered in the interim before those state or federal authorities arrive? The exercise of police authority in this case, the United States argued, “does not subject non-Indians to tribal laws and regulations,” but, rather, “it simply facilitates the exercise of sovereign authority by state and federal governments which plainly do enjoy jurisdiction over non-Indians.” The evidence Officer Saylor uncovered helped United States authorities enforce the laws of the United States.
The United States argues that it is dangerous to permit a tribal officer “to ask only one question to determine whether a suspect is an Indian” and then require that officer to accept that answer. This would allow “serious criminals to escape law-enforcement through the expediency of a simple lie that officers will be powerless to expose through follow-up questioning or investigation.”
So there is a lot at stake in this case, much more than the fate of a suspected drug dealer who pulled his truck over along the side of a road late one night on the Crow Reservation. Think of the recent Violence Against Women Act, which gave to Native nations a limited right to arrest and prosecute non-natives for intimate partner violence committed in “Indian Country.” In an amicus brief written by the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and joined in by all the Indian Nations whose lands lie in the Ninth Circuit, Sarah Deer pointed out under VAWA, “many tribes across the United States now detain, arrest, investigate, and prosecute anyone who committed certain domestic violence crimes arising in Indian Country–regardless of whether the perpetrator is Indian or not.” The Circuit Court’s ruling, if allowed to stand, “will merely encourage criminals to lie about their identity, as a simple statement that an individual is non-Indian, regardless of whether it is the truth, will now strip law enforcement of any authority to detain them for suspected illegal conduct.”
If, for example, a “Pascua Yaqui law officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver of a vehicle on the reservation is committing a crime of domestic violence, must the officer ascertain the citizenship of the suspect before effectuating a . . . stop, despite the fact that Congress has passed a law restoring that officer’s full authority to arrest non-Indians who commit domestic violence crimes on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation?”
Native American women face the highest rates of violence in the country, and the majority of those committing these crimes are non-Indian. Across the United States, many non-Indians live and own lands on Indian Reservations. With almost half of all Native American women experiencing intimate partner violence, and with Native American women more than two and a half times more likely than non-Native women to be victims of rape or sexual assault, the stakes in this case are enormous.
Earlier this year the Court issued what I considered a surprising decision in the McGirt case. McGirt involved treaty rights at congressional “plenary authority” over Indian affairs. Land which the State of Oklahoma thought was under its criminal jurisdiction was still legally “Indian Country” because no federal act had changed the status of the land. Cooley touches on what happens when white people living on or passing through Indian Country commit crimes. Originally, Indian tribes were thought to be able to do whatever they wanted, unless they were specifically prohibited from doing so by a treaty or an act of congress. In 1978, the Court modified that, ruling that tribes could do whatever they wanted, unless prohibited by treaty or act of congress, or if the practice in question was somehow inconsistent with their status as domestic dependent nations, like prosecuting non-Indians for crimes committed on reservations. The Supreme Court’s history toward Indian tribes can be understood in terms of the significant erosion of tribes’ ability to exercise sovereign authority. And these rulings, in terms of crimes uninvestigated, unprosecuted, and unpunished, have literally ruined the lives of too many Native peoples. The Cooley case could make it even more difficult for tribes to protect themselves from criminals who pass through their lands. I have no idea how the Court will rule, but I worry very much about its consequences.
The President’s mishandling of the COVID 19 pandemic–his denial of its seriousness; his refusal to encourage basic public health measures; his denigration of health experts who called upon him for action, his inattention and cruel incompetence–all intensified the suffering of millions of Americans who fell ill or who were left grieving, and nowhere was that more clear than in Native American communities. According to a CDC report released in December of last year, “American Indian and Alaskan Native people were nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 compared to non-Hispanic whites.” The age-adjusted mortality rate for Native peoples was 1.8 times higher than it was for whites, a measure that translates “to 55.8 deaths per 100,000 compared to 30.3 deaths per 100,000 in AI/ANs and whites, respectively.
Why was this so? The CDC Report said that “Long-standing inequities in public funding; infrastructure; and access to healthcare, education, stable housing, healthy foods and insurance coverage have contributed to health disparities that put indigenous peoples at higher risk for severe COVID-19-associated illness.”
The Trump Administration excluded small businesses on Indian reservations from the first round of applications from the Paycheck Protection Program, the first effort to address the economic devastation that followed the outbreak of the pandemic. His administration, even during the Covid-19 outbreak, repeatedly threatened the Affordable Care Act, jeopardizing health care on Indian Reservations and initially excluded tribes from the CARES Act before Senate and House leaders secured ten billion dollars in funding.
It turns out that if you elect an insensitive fool as President of the United States, that president will do insensitive and foolish things. And that foolishness, buttressed by racism and spite, is nothing to laugh about. IT is lethal. The Trump Administration, because of COVID-19, and its own incompetence, corruption, and cruelty, has ruined peoples’ lives. If you have grieved in the past year, or fell ill yourself, or felt the economic pains this administration has refused to meaningfully address, of course you know that. For Native peoples, everything you have felt has been many times worse. The Trump Administration caused massive and unnecessary suffering during an already difficult period. It has coarsened racial discourse in a country with deep and obvious problems with structural racism and inequality. It has led by encouraging the fear and anger and hatred of white people who feel any gain by people of color is a loss for them. And it has acted consistently as if any legitimate grievance by Indigenous peoples is unworthy of attention. It has been a brutal four years, and those who have supported this president have done enormous damage to the fabric of this tattered republic.