WASHINGTON – In contrast to last year’s tribal summit with the president, the White House didn’t want complete transparency involving the day’s events, which were sometimes filled with pointed messages from tribal leaders to Obama administration officials.
In early December, the White House announced that a large chunk of the day would be closed to press, and would not be broadcast online. The president’s introductory speech would be open, and streamed on the Internet – as would a closing session meant to briefly summarize the day – but the meat of the event, when tribal leaders actually got down to business, letting federal officials know directly about their concerns, was off limits.
Edited summaries of the business sessions were provided later in the day, touching on main points, but not getting into much detail – a marked contrast to the unedited nature of last year’s session. The White House also promised to provide an overall report of the sessions.
The official explanation for the clampdown was that the White House wanted to make tribal leaders feel comfortable to talk freely, without fear.
In 2009 and 2010, the White House Tribal Conference saw tribal representatives invited to the Interior Department for a day-long meeting with the president and his top administration officials. Last year's proceedings were completely open; those of the 2010 summit (which happened December 16) were not. Some tribal citizens wondered whether the White House felt last year’s event was lacking, or that the tribal representatives had not been completely candid in some way.
The 2009 meeting was also fully streamed on the Internet for any tribal representatives or citizens who were interested in directly witnessing the proceedings, sans filters. Since a vast majority of Indian country could not directly participate in the event, the openness was widely welcomed.
Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House, would not answer whether last year’s event suffered in some way due to its complete accessibility.
“We want to ensure that the tribal leaders feel comfortable having a frank and open dialogue in the breakout sessions,” Inouye said when pressed on the matter.
A reporter also noted to Inouye that the issue of transparency in coverage of tribal-federal government happenings is especially important to many tribal citizens who have had to push their own tribal governments to be open and honest, in order to help build a level of trust.
On that point, Brian Bull, assistant news director for Wisconsin Public Radio, said tribal citizens’ access to important information was vastly limited by the new policy.
“It’ll be up to each individual tribal leader or chair to disclose what was addressed in the break-out sessions, and just having that one filter may well cause details to be forgotten or omitted,” Bull said. “And without the press available to witness these sessions and ask questions or clarify on part of their audience, how will people know if they’re getting the full story?”
Many tribal leaders said they would have liked the full event to be transparent. Their main reason for desiring openness is that it would be easier to hold the administration accountable for its promises.
“I don’t have an issue with it being open, and I also do not feel it would limit discussion,” said Derek Bailey, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “I felt last year’s gathering went well, press or not, and I know that as I presented the Midwest region’s views, I did not feel encumbered by having press in attendance.”
Bailey said he feels it is important to promote transparency and communication, which is what he tries to do in leading his own nation, adding, “It’s important to me that tribal citizens are informed and aware.”
Still, not all tribal governments and tribal organizations are secure with complete transparency – a reality that was showcased at the tribal nations’ conference when some Indian groups, including the National Congress of American Indians, closed large portions of their planning sessions to coverage.
The thinking is that they wanted to be able to present a clean and clear message, planners said, keeping disagreements behind the scenes.
That notion is understandable to some Indian-focused journalists, but they also raise the point that tribal citizens have often been excluded, so tribes and Indian organizations should try to be more transparent, especially on issues that impact all of Indian country.
“I think if any discussions regarding tribal lands, issues, etc. are going on, everyone needs to be informed about it,” said Rhonda LeValdo, president of the Native American Journalists Association. “I would hope that people feel that having the press there might encourage the White House to be more open, honest and willing to discuss those issues.”
LeValdo said the more open an event like the tribal nations summit could have been, the more likely tribal citizens would be to see Indian issues addressed and resolved.
“This would also give tribal members the opportunity to see their leaders in action and accountability for traveling to the summit -- i.e., did their tribal leaders lobby for them?”
She added that she has not heard of any tribal leaders feeling like they couldn’t ask a question due to the presence of the press.
Ronnie Washines, immediate past president of NAJA, took issue with the White House editing and summarizing the information it chose to release based on the closed meetings with tribal officials.
“I don’t think we should be spoon-fed information. We should have responsible press there to provide accurate reports on what’s being echoed through our government-to-government tongues.
“What is wrong with having the press do its work? I come from a culture where I need to hear the words come from the mouths who spoke them.”
Washines believes that tribal leaders need to encourage the presence of Native press at all events affecting tribal citizens, especially ones of such importance as a White House meeting.
“We do not have agendas that would circumvent what transpired, and they need to support our jobs to get the facts to the all Native communities.”