Tribal Leaders Urge Obama Administration to Honor Contract Obligations



Tribal leaders from across Turtle Island have embarked on Washington, D.C. this week for the fifth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in hopes to improve the government-to-government relationship between the United States and tribal communities around the country.

The 2013 Conference, going on throughout the day, has been bookended by events hosted by the National Congress of American Indians along with other Obama Administration meetings. All the events aim to highlight many issues still relevant within Indian country, but according to NCAI, “one of the most far-reaching is the fiduciary relationship between tribal nations and the federal government.”

Leaders from many of the 566 federally recognized tribes will communicate with the Obama Administration and Congress, where discussion on the federal budget will be a priority.

ON Tuesday, November 12, some of the tribal leaders attended a listening session, leading up to the Conference, and on Thursday, November 14, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will hold an Oversight Hearing on sequestration in Indian country and contract support costs.

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According to an NCAI release, this time spent with SCIA is critical to highlighting the grave impacts of trust and treaty-breaking sequester cuts and short funding of tribal contracts and compacts, an “utter failure of Congress and the federal government to uphold their commitments to Indian country.”

In advance of today’s Conference Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp, released comments requesting that the Obama administration do more for tribal communities. “Indian, Alaskan Native and Hawaiian peoples have endured, and are enduring, the worst possible conditions, from extreme poverty to early death. Our children go to the worst schools. We have the worst health care and we are on the front lines facing the very real impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. The glaciers in our mountains are melting. Our lands and waters are being eroded, poisoned with pollution and displaced by careless development,” she said. “Too often, federal agencies ignore our rights and our sovereignty.”

RELATED: Fawn Sharp: Conference Appreciated but ‘We Need More’

The U.S. entered into inter-governmental contracts with tribes under which tribes administer federal trust programs for the benefit of tribal members – Indian Self-Determination Act. However, the process is flawed and continuously fails to meet these contracts, more often than not following a “cycle of negotiating contracts and then refusing to pay the agreed upon amount is preventing tribes from achieving self-determination and progress towards self-sufficiency.”

Indian country as it stands is unique to this problem, but the following examples can show how this behavior can go on to affect millions more Americans if it continues to go unchecked.

--The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government acted illegally in failing to pay tribes and tribal contractors full contract amounts. The BIA and IHS breached thousands of contracts over the course of 20 years resulting in millions of dollars owed.

--The BIA and IHS have repeatedly reported to Congress the exact debt owed to tribal nations – reporting so exact that the monetary amount is broken down by tribe. These reports illustrate that these agencies are fully aware of the extent of their misdeeds.

--The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is attempting to include in fiscal year 2014 appropriations and continuing resolution measures a mechanism to convert mandatory contract payments into discretionary grant payments – thus removing any responsibility of the federal government to pay its debts to Indian country. This maneuver would also change the relationship from one of bilateral agreement to one of unilateral decree. The actions of the OMB undermine the Administration’s commitment to Indian self-determination and tribal self-governance.

--The Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs must embrace an inclusive and transparent process for developing reforms with tribal involvement and consultation. There must be improved movement towards an open and honest process for fulfilling these contracts.

“The authority of the Supreme Court is critical to the American legal and governmental system. Federal agencies are blatantly disregarding the ruling of the Court in a direct attack on the basic rules that control the government contracting process to delay justice for tribes,” NCAI states in a release.

NCAI leaders have unanimously passed resolutions opposing the Administration’s effort to overrule the Supreme Court’s rulings with provisions intended to eliminate all future contract claims. Eighty-one tribal leaders penned a letter to President Obama that asked the administration to step in and force these agencies to honor their contracts and debts. A request that according to the NCAI release appears to have been heard as the administration has made an effort to address the issues. Obama’s 2014 Budget features proposed investments that honor the trust responsibility and advance Indian self-determination, critical to the future of Indian country. Also important to fully honoring treaty programs is the administration’s efforts to turn off sequestration for domestic programs.

Today, tribal leaders hope President Obama and his administration will hear their urgings to settle IHS and BIA claims, honor current and future contracts, and consult with tribes on any reforms.