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Why It’s Time to Create a Cabinet-Level Dept. of Native Affairs

At his first swearing-in ceremony as president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in January 2014, Danny Breuninger declared his priorities: enhanced communication, accountability, long-term planning, and economic diversification. But from the vantage point of his second term, he’s finding systemic barriers to achieving each of these and has some thoughts about reforms.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with President Breuninger in the tribal offices in Mescalero, New Mexico.

The views and opinions expressed by President Breuninger are not necessarily representative of the Mescalero Apache Tribe and/or the Mescalero Apache Tribal Council.

Is the current relationship between the U.S. Federal Government and tribal governments conducive to the accountability you feel is necessary?

Under President Obama’s administration there have been advances, such as the appointment of a Senior Policy Advisor in the White House, and the appointment of many American Indian and Alaska Natives to key positions within his Administration. That has been an amazing advancement for Native Americans. But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Native representation needs to be sitting at the table with the president from a position of strength and respect, from our own Cabinet-level department; and tribes should be testifying on all issues that directly affect Native people before congress about our needs in all of the many urgent areas of governmental concern: federal budgets, historic preservation, natural resources, social services, education, roads, the environment to name a few.

Right now the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is our intermediary, but often serves as a bureaucratic obstacle.

On the BIA’s website it says it’s been “evolving as federal policies designed to subjugate and assimilate American Indians and Alaska Natives have changed to policies that promote Indian self-determination.” Is this your experience?

The BIA has a major role in the success or failure of promoting self-determination, but it’s the ever-changing presidential administrations and congressional leadership in both the House and Senate that has the greatest influence on self-determination. The BIA has not been sufficiently funded for years to properly manage, administer and award Indian Self Determination Contracts, which creates programmatic problems for tribes who are responsible for carrying out these contracts.

Another problem is the grant process. We as tribes are competing with many other tribes and non-tribal state and local governmental agencies. Often times we feel we’re not getting a fair shake, and I’m sure other tribes feel the same way.

Take for example a planning grant we were awarded for our sawmill that’s been defunct for eight years, which we now hope to revive. From our perspective it’s a crucial economic development project we have in mind to diversify our revenue sources. We’re looking at this business from an analytical standpoint—not just what types of products can be produced, but what products can we produce that will sustain the ongoing operation of the mill? Bureau of Indian Affairs, BIA, Indian Self Determination Contracts,

The tribe owns property in Alamagordo where we can tie into a rail spur. Our lumber products can be loaded onto rail cars and shipped all over the world, so there’s an enormous advantage to be seized. Once we restore the sawmill, I believe we’ll have all kinds of other opportunities.

But the grant we got this year is the exact same grant we did not get last year. And there’s no guarantee for next year. Let me add that we are very thankful for being considered and that we were awarded the grant, but this process exemplifies the challenges we face.

Why do you think you’d do better in a Cabinet-level department?

Because Native programs and people would be at the center of the discussion. We wouldn’t be in the position of being always under-represented in the margins.

You’re envisioning a change from the rhetoric of “self-determination” to a more concrete reality?

I believe it’s time to raise Native issues to a national level. And not have them tucked away in an agency whose primary mission is land management, like the U.S. Department of Interior.

We need a stronger voice at the table sitting with other Cabinet secretaries in front of the president on a regular basis, and not once a year during presidential consultations. Of course we appreciate that opportunity, but our issues are year-round, 24/7.

As many know, within the Interior Department, BIA sits alongside the Bureau of Land Management, Fish & Wildlife, National Parks and a few more. They’re all competing for the same dollars and I don’t believe our voices are being heard as tribal leaders. Native Americans make up 1 percent of the population, the cards are stacked against us. We can holler, kick and scream, but our voices can only go so far.

Are there existing legal instruments in place upon which you can build your case for structural reform?

On November 6, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13175 requiring a government-to-government relationship between tribes and the U.S. That would entail having a mechanism for ongoing open dialogue, for having those needed conversations that governments have with other governments, especially those with whom they have borders and other shared interests.

President Obama has restated that same principle and has met annually with tribal leaders in Washington D.C. I can tell you that I appreciate that. No other president in history has ever taken that kind of positive interest in Native issues before.

In my view a new department of the executive branch devoted to Native issues with a capable leader in the Cabinet seat is the most direct way to fulfill the true spirit of self-determination and a sincere commitment to a real government-to-government relationship.

It’s true that Cabinet-level departments come and go, several in our own lifetimes, and that creating a new one is a matter of political will. Having said that, is this an achievable project?

I don’t see why not. It makes so much sense that I ask why hasn’t it been done before? If the Federal Government is to ever fully live up to and honor it’s government-to-government relationship and treaty and statutory obligations with tribes, then this is the right thing to do.

Is there a wrong waiting to be righted?

Since the earliest time the white man has tried to bring about our assimilation and destruction of our culture. There was nothing in our school history books about the imprisonment of tribes, sexual abuse, wrongful mass murdering, or about our remarkable survival. We’re not going away; history has proven that, no matter what they’ve thrown at us.

We’re going to continue to survive—we are smart, intelligent, good partners, good players. All we want is to be allowed to be successful and enjoy a good quality of life in this country.

But I see Native Americans today as an invisible part of the U.S. population. The situation that has unfolded on Standing Rock Sioux Reservation is a classic example. I don’t believe any of the three major TV networks reported from Standing Rock about the pipeline construction. It angers me when I see political polls on TV; never ever is there a poll number for Native Americans and who they support. It’s as if our numbers don’t count. In the census, we used to have to check the “Other” box, we weren’t even counted. Now we’re counted but our numbers are small. So what if we don’t have the numbers or the largest donors to parties and PACS? The important thing is we are citizens of the United States, we’ve served in every war and still do today. We are the First Americans.

We as Native Americans must continue to speak out; it’s not that we want anything special. We just want what’s fair and due us—respect, dignity, our own language and heritage, and to maintain our traditional ways of our culture.  It’s time to level the playing field.

Who would you nominate for Secretary?

I don’t have a specific person in mind, but let me suggest some basic qualifications. The Cabinet Secretary should be a member of a federally recognized Indian tribe, have a formal education, be passionate about Native America, be versed in the history and struggles of Native America, and be able to cross party lines and speak to anyone at any time regarding contemporary Native American matters.

There’s a lot of great young folks out there; we’re not keeping pace with our stage in history right now.

How would you characterize this historical moment?

This could be the next major era of achievement for Native people since the passage of the Indian Self-determination and Education Act in the 1960s. Indian tribes have spent way too much time in the background of this country. As I’ve said we have basically become invisible to society. The time is now for tribes to take a seat at the table, and bring about solutions to the issues we face.

Is Indian country ready to let go of the “devil it knows” and fast forward its own evolution?

That’s a good question. There’s some comfort in what’s familiar and I’m sure some may be opposed to change. Certainly we can continue down this well beaten path, but if we don’t call for change, at the end of the day we will only continue to perpetuate the status quo and allow ourselves to be cast aside and accept the kind of attention and services we now receive.

If it’s not creating a Cabinet-level Indian Affairs Office, then what?

This article originally appeared on Indian Country Today.

 

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Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village (Carol MRP Co., New York, 2007), and a social justice blogger at Written Word, Spoken Word.

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