Thursday, December 08, 2022

Native American leaders seek more from US consultations

ALBUQUERQUE, NM ( Associated Press) – It was a quick trip for US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, with stops to hike through desert forest near the US-Mexico border and to marvel at the winding Organ Mountains before moving into how life in one of the oldest settlements along a historic trade route.

For Haaland, the time spent in West Texas and New Mexico in recent days has helped highlight the work being done to preserve parts of the borderlands.

But it was also an opportunity for Haaland – as head of the agency that oversees tribal affairs – to keep promises to meet with Native American tribes who became increasingly frustrated with the federal government’s failure to bring them in. close when making decisions about land. management, energy development or the protection of sacred sites.

Haaland’s choice as the first Native American to serve in the post opened a door for tribes pointing to a history full of broken promises.

“I want the era where tribes were in the background to be over, and I want to make sure they have real opportunities to sit at the table,” Haaland said on March 17, 2021, her first day on the job.

Haaland has since met with nearly 130 of the country’s 574 federally recognized tribes as it seeks to revamp a federal system that has restricted Native American relations to a check-the-box exercise.

And while some tribes say her aspirations are admirable, others remain skeptical that they will see real change, saying they have not yet experienced meaningful dialogue with the federal government or key decision-makers.

Haaland’s department has developed a plan to improve formal consultations with tribes and has set up an advisory committee that will assist with communication once it is underway. In an effort to make consultation a feature of her tenure, Haaland said she wants the integration of tribal inputs to become second nature to her employees.

There has been some success, as tribes heard when the Biden administration restored the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and when the U.S. Department of Agriculture withdrew an environmental impact statement that paved the way for a copper mining operation. in Arizona to further consult with tribes.

But frustrations continue among tribal leaders who say their talks with the federal government have not led to action on the ground.

For the Ute Indian Tribe in Utah, those frustrations lie in the management of the Colorado River Basin while western states are struggling with less water amid a mega-drought and climate change. Tribes were not included in a century-old compact that divided the water, and the Ute tribe says it now sees the same exclusion.

The tribe’s business committee has spent hours meeting and preparing formal comments, saying it is tired of reiterating its position that the federal government should protect the tribe’s water rights or support the development of water infrastructure to serve the reserve.

Committee chairman Shaun Chapoose said he had seen suggestions, but “the real where-the-rubber-the-road stuff has not happened yet, and the drought is getting worse.”

There are similar sentiments among Navajo Nation legislators concerned about Haaland’s plans to curb oil and gas development on federal land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.

Advocacy groups sent a letter Thursday to Haaland, saying more needs to be done to include tribes as her department points out a way forward for the protection of culturally important areas in northwestern New Mexico.

The Department of the Interior said more meetings with the Navajo nation and other tribes were planned for April and that Navajo-language translators would be present.

In Nevada, several tribes and the National Congress of American Indians asked the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to maintain a duty to engage in “robust and adequate” tribal consultation regarding plans for a massive lithium mine at Thackerpas. So far, the tribes say it did not happen.

Under the U.S. Constitution, treaties, and statutes, the federal government must consult meaningfully and in good faith with the tribes of Native American and Alaska natives when making decisions or taking steps that are expected to affect them.

However, a 2019 report from a government watchdog found that some federal agencies did not respect tribal sovereignty, did not have sufficient resources for consultation, or could not always reach tribes.

Another major complaint of tribes is that they are brought in when an action has already been instituted, instead of including them in the earliest stages of planning.

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

Consultation does not always lead to action or create any substantive rights on the part of the tribes, which makes it somewhat of a “toothless tiger,” says Dylan Hedden-Nicely, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who runs the Native American Law Program at the University of Idaho.

He said it was reasonable, though wrong, to think that 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 office. But the foundation is still being laid to bring about real change, Hedden-Nicely said.

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

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

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

During his first month in office, President Joe Biden issued a memo reaffirming previous executive orders on tribal consultation and ordering federal agencies to spell out how they would comply. This set in motion Haaland’s efforts to give tribal leaders a direct line of communication to the Department of Home Affairs.

A congressional committee is scheduled for next week to pass a bill by the Democratic U.S. Rep. Consider Raúl Grijalva of Arizona who will codify a framework for tribal consultation that, according to supporters, will isolate the process of changes in administration.

The legislation faces an uphill battle, and some tribes want to ensure it includes a path, not only for the federal government to initiate consultation, but for tribal leaders to initiate talks as well. Similar legislation introduced in the past has failed.

For Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute tribe in Nevada, consultation should be more than a generic letter or email.

“I want real, 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 has long been in arrears, and it will be a step in the right direction to ensure that tribal nation sovereignty is protected.”


Fonseca reports from Flagstaff, Arizona.

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