American Indian leaders and Native-focused legislators are pushing President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to establish a tribal economic development council made up of actual tribal leaders.

Such a move, say advocates of the seemingly common-sense idea, would illustrate that Obama and his administration are serious about creating an overarching economic plan for Indian country, and it would put more weight behind a series of disjointed initiatives his team has already offered.

They note, too, that the President of late has been willing to face scrutiny from Republicans by expanding his use of executive powers on immigration reform, health care, and other issues, so they wish he would add this pressing area to his agenda. And there’s already a model in place for him to do so, exemplified by his creation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology through executive order in 2010.

“It’s time to diversify the conversation,” says Gary Davis, president and chief executive officer of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, who noted the idea was seriously discussed at the organization’s recently-concluded Washington, D.C.-based Reservation Economic Summit. “We need the Native people who are advancing economic develop in Indian country every single day weighing in, making sure that the proper tribal perspective is being offered.”

Indian leaders know full well that the president has already created a White House Native American Affairs Council, but they widely lament that it is made up mainly of non-Indian agency officials spread throughout the vast administration who don’t have the on-the-ground experience rooted in the realities of tribal economies.

It makes for a good photo op when the administration’s council gets together, Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, has said, and agency officials can therefore say they are focused on tribal economic development, as well as a bevy of other tribal issues. However, given the limited tribal input built in to this system, tribal leaders have feared that the council misses major opportunities to improve struggling reservation economies.

To be fair, the administration and the council have indeed reached out to tribal leaders to solicit their ideas for bold and wide-sweeping improvement. During last year’s White House Tribal Nations Summit, for instance, Obama held a meeting with a small group of Indian leaders who suggested that the federal government encourage more collaboration between private business and tribes by convening a gathering of such entities. Ray Halbritter, Oneida Nation representative and CEO of Nation Enterprises, parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network, said after that presidential meeting, which he attended, that an advantage in having the administration facilitate such an endeavor is that it has power that tribes and Indian organizations lack.

“If the administration backed such a plan, there would be an automatic serious nature to it,” Halbritter said at the time. “Businesses would perhaps feel more obliged to collaborate and to find ways to partner with Indian nations.”

The administration has already made tentative and limited progress in improving reservation economies. During the president’s June trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the White House noted in a press release that the administration has in several instances already partnered with Native communities by granting multi-millions of dollars in funding, by providing increased technical assistance on various federal-tribal programs, and by pushing for legal and regulatory tribal economy-focused improvements.

New initiatives are also in the pipeline, the White House said, noting that the administration wants to remove regulatory barriers to Indian energy and infrastructure development, increase tribal land development opportunities, and make federal data focused on tribal economic development easier to find and use by tribes. Encouraging the use of tax-exempt bonds for tribal economic development, growing Native small businesses, and supporting Indian veterans were also on the agenda.

Brian Patterson, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes, says he is supportive of the administration’s efforts to date and its plans for the future. “However,” he adds, “none of this will transform the situation without the full engagement of Indian country as an equal partner.”

Says Chris Stearns, a Native affairs lawyer with Hobbs Straus: “[W]ithout the direct input of tribal leaders, scholars, and activists into federal policy, you tend to wind up with piecemeal fixes that are not linked together in a way that makes them effective.

“I can’t imagine that a Council on Native American Affairs led by the tribes themselves wouldn’t be able to come up with 10 times more than what a roomful of federal officials has been able to do so far,” Stearns adds.

One of the reasons the administration has been reluctant in some cases to solicit stronger tribal input on economic development issues is the fact that many tribal leaders want federal laws that they feel impact their growth relaxed or removed. Progressive laws, like the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), are hindrances to development on many reservations, several tribal leaders have testified before Congress.

“These and other laws create conflicting allegiances for the federal Indian trustee, bogging down tribal development decisions to the point that tribes cannot compete fairly in most private sector markets,” says Philip Banker-Shenk, a Native Affairs lawyer with Holland & Knight. “It may be audacious to think the role of the federal Indian trustee should trump laws like the APA, NEPA, or ESA, but it is no more audacious than the present paralysis caused by how those laws now neuter the federal Indian trusteeship.”

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, is one who believes the administration has been slow in supporting economic self-determination for tribes because that goal often conflicts with its more progressive ideals. For instance, the congressman’s recent Native American Energy Act received tribal support from its conception to its passage in the House as part of a larger bill, yet the administration has opposed it all along the way. The bill, if ever signed into law by the president, could open up many opportunities for tribal energy development – both of the renewable and non-renewable type – yet it would also give tribes more of an ability to challenge NEPA and other regulations that hold them back from such development. Thus, the administration has been opposed—a major source of consternation to tribal advocates who note that Indian oil, gas and construction in aggregate garnered copy5 billion for a select group of tribes in 2013. Many more tribes could be able to benefit if Young’s legislation became law.

“The administration continues to focus on endless discussions, but rarely takes actions,” says Matt Shuckerow, a spokesman for Young. “Truly promoting economic self-sufficiency for tribes takes more than hosting a tribal summit each year. The administration should actively work with Congress to allow for responsible development of natural resources on tribal lands.”

Such criticism from a Republican is perhaps expected in partisan Washington, but Jon Tester (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA), agrees that the progress of both the administration and current Congress has been too sluggish and not focused on supporting true tribal self-determination.

Tester says that the federal government sometimes holds tribes back from self-determination opportunities, adding that he has tended to see more economic successes from tribes that have been able to take increased responsibility over programs that support their lands and citizens. How to get all tribes to be able to take increased responsibility is one of the major dilemmas of this situation, he says. “Make no mistake, I know how difficult it is,” he adds. “When you’re poor, you’re poor.”

A step in the right direction, Tester says, would be for the president to create a permanent Cabinet-level Native affairs advisor position that could elevate these issues to the highest level of federal government in conjunction with appointing a tribal economic development council to inform such an advisor.

“If in fact this is something that can happen, we will talk about it as a committee, and send a letter off,” Tester says.

Davis, fresh from testifying before SCIA on economic development challenges facing tribes in late-June, says he’d be more than willing to join such a council. “As it is now, I worry we may not be looking as far to the left as we can, nor as far to the right as we can,” he says. “We need to be open-minded, we need to take responsibility, and we need to have a real seat at the table.”


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