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This story was originally published by High Country News
When President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, many tribal leaders took a wait-and-see approach given his poor track record on indigenous affairs. Four years later, Indian Country has weathered a failed pandemic, budget cuts, and diminished environmental regulations.
During his tenure, many senior positions in the Indian Affairs Bureau and the Home Office were left empty or filled by candidates who were never screened by Congress. The White House’s annual Tribal Nations Conference, which was held by President Barack Obama for eight years, has been suspended. The three judges on the Trump Supreme Court include one with a solid understanding of Indian federal law and the U.S. government’s responsibilities to tribes, and one whose legal outlook is actively damaging.
In the first year of his tenure, Trump made his priorities clear with a series of memos and executive orders removing land and wildlife protection. His America First energy plan accelerated controversial projects such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, monumentally and consistently rejected by the indigenous peoples and their allies. He reduced the newly constructed Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, a memorial whose creation had been directed and centered by Indians. “Trump was the first to take the anti-indigenous stance in office,” said Matt Campbell, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund and enrolled member of the Native Village of Gambell. “Well, I think that set the tone for the relationship early on.”
“The total onslaught of rollbacks of federal regulations under environmental laws was like nothing we’ve ever seen. It was dizzying. ”
Trump’s policies also reduced environmental protection. Federal laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act allow tribes to contribute to major projects in their ancestral lands. Under Trump these were weakened. “The total onslaught of rollbacks of federal regulations under environmental laws was like nothing we’ve ever seen. It was dizzying, ”said Gussie Lord (Oneida Nation of Wisconsin), executive tribal partnership attorney at Earthjustice. “Not only did this weaken physical protection, it was also a real attack on public participation and access to information.”
And then the pandemic: As Senate assistants at the Huffington Post said, tribal nations were initially not included in the first COVID-19 relief package. Even when allocating $ 10 billion to tribal nations, the distribution continued for months with critical assistance withheld for personal protective equipment, financial aid, and testing. “This administration’s record is one of the repeated failures for indigenous communities,” Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement. “The truth is that the White House is actively undermining tribal sovereignty across the country and mistreating a once-a-century pandemic that disproportionately hurts local communities.”
The effects are still being felt in the current wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths. Thousands die every day nationwide. The Navajo nation, which saw a devastating spike in COVID cases and deaths over the summer, has started spiking the numbers again, according to reports from the Navajo Times. Meanwhile, the CARES Act funding deadline of December 30th looms.
“Tribes have been pushed aside by this government,” said Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, speaking at the Democratic National Convention in August. The difference between the Trump and Obama administrations is “day and night”. Even so, Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer spoke for Trump at the Republican National Convention.
Many of the decisions made over the past four years will have a lasting impact on the Indian country, regardless of how quickly the new Biden / Harris administration works to reverse them:
The border wall: What began as a campaign promise has resulted in 423 miles of steel walls cutting through the border landscape. The vast majority of those miles already had some sort of barrier, but these newly added miles came at a high cost. In Guadalupe Canyon, Arizona, a five-mile rock blasting stretch cost $ 41 million per mile. Tribal nations like the Tohono O’odham have expressed their opposition to the construction, which has damaged important natural and cultural sites without a consultation process. “The Trump administration’s ruthless disregard for our religious and constitutional rights is reflected in the dynamite and bulldozers that are now rumbling through our original homelands,” Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, wrote in high Country News.
Tribal lands: Although Trump signed two bills that recognized a total of seven tribal nations nationwide, his Home Office also withdrew a legal opinion designed to help the tribes reclaim the ancestral land and attempted to destroy reservation areas of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. A federal judge called Interior’s legal memorandum in Mashpee’s case “incomprehensible” and described it as “one of the worst written documents I have ever read by any government agency.”
Four years without climate protection: In addition to pushing an oil and gas agenda, Trump removed the US from the Paris Agreement in 2017, despite tribal nations having announced their intention to uphold the terms of the deal. In the meantime, the tribes themselves have made progress. This year, five tribal nations called for a UN investigation into the possible human rights abuses stemming from the United States’ lack of response and action to climate-related crises and sea levels.
Actions by the Trump administration have not slowed in recent months as their agencies continue to accelerate politically charged projects. In November, the US Forest Service decided to de-protect the Tongass National Forest to keep new wood, mining, and hydroelectric plants to a minimum. None of the Southeast Alaskan Native American tribes involved supported such a move, and in the end, all eleven had withdrawn from participating in the Forest Service process.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas leasing despite opposition from the Alaskan tribes and the Gwich’in Steering Committee. In Arizona, the San Carlos Apache tribe has turned down a US Forest Service land swap that would allow copper mining in an area called Chi’chil Bildagoteel or Oak Flat, which has important religious and cultural sites. Although the Forest Service moved the final decision date from April 2021 to December 30 on December 1, the agency said it “does not reflect any acceleration”.
Some of this could be reversed by new President Joe Biden or by Congress. Other decisions made by officials in “acting” capacity could become invalid. However, valuable time has already been lost in tackling the climate crisis and life lost in the worst public health crisis of a generation cannot be regained. On November 8, less than a week after Election Day, the National Indian Congress held its annual session, which that year focused on truth and reconciliation and future administration. “We call for reconciliation with the basic principles on which this country is built – principles such as justice, equality, freedom, freedom to live as our ancestors lived at the beginning of time,” said NCAI President Fawn Sharp (Quinault) said. “Only then can we begin a healing process as a country and as a nation.”