Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator

After Slow Start, Tribal-Federal Consultation Progresses at FEMA

Rob Capriccioso

Just a few months into his first term, President Barack Obama requested that all federal agencies develop “meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials.” On November 5, 2009, he directed each of his agency heads to submit to the director of the Office of Management and Budget their detailed consultation plans within 90 days.

Some agencies, like the Departments of the Interior and Health and Human Services – long accustomed to working with tribes – were quick to follow suit; they released comprehensive plans that have been applauded by tribal leaders (yet even these well-intentioned plans have sometimes been usurped, as happened during the recent federal sequestration of tribal funding). Other agencies, as previously reported by Indian Country Today Media Network, lagged behind—following a path of lacking federal-tribal consultation that has occurred under many presidents before Obama.

RELATED: Agencies miss 90-day tribal consultation deadline

Still others submitted late initial consultation plans that tribal leaders and citizens didn’t view as being all that meaningful, but rather as rudimentary words that would require vast expansion if the agencies truly intended to strengthen tribal-federal relations beyond a perfunctory lip-service level.

Such was the case with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) it encompasses. In 2009, DHS issued a draft of its tribal consultation policy, later followed by a final version in 2010. The policy said things that sounded good to tribes, but as it pertained to federal-tribal relations on disaster-related aid, citizenship issues, and other areas, the policy was sorely lacking. At that time, the only way tribes could receive federal assistance when faced with flood, fires, or other devastation was to ask their respective states to ask the federal government for help. It wasn’t a model of federal respect for tribal sovereignty, and it wasn’t helping tribes receive assistance quickly enough, tribal leaders said.

As Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator, heard and listened to increasing tribal concerns, he strongly supported legislation that would allow tribes to directly work with and petition the president directly for disaster-related funds and assistance when needed. To great fanfare in Indian country, the legislation passed Congress in early 2013, and since then a handful have tribes have been able to take advantage.

RELATED: Interview: FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate Applauds US House Passage of Tribal Bill

Tribal leaders have widely applauded this improved relationship with FEMA and Fugate’s role in supporting it. Six tribes to date have already been able to interact directly with the agency to receive federal assistance in seven instances without interference from their respective states. Tribes that still wish to work through their states have continued to be able to do so, but the option is now there for them to take more responsibility if they can and want to in the future.

Elizabeth Zimmerman, deputy associate administrator for response and recovery at FEMA, says that passage of the legislation and its implantation was an impetus for FEMA to create a better tribal consultation policy.

The agency still follows the 2010 DHS tribal consultation policy, but FEMA has also developed its own policy specific to tribal relations, released in late-August, in order to provide further guidance to FEMA employees on how to consult with tribes. FEMA’s policy is consistent with the DHS policy, agency officials say, and it is perhaps a model for other agencies that have in the past lacked solid relationships with tribes.

“We didn’t really have a FEMA-specific tribal consultation policy [before now],” Zimmerman says. “We had different documents that talked about tribal consultation, but we really focused on it this time for this one.”

Milo Booth, who was hired as a national tribal affairs advisor for FEMA in May, says the new consultation policy lays out a blueprint for not only the how and when to engage with tribes, but also the who on both the agency and tribal ends.

“We have clearly identified roles, specifically with the tribal consultation coordinator [and their role in the FEMA hierarchy],” Booth says. “It also mentions that we will work to the fullest extent possible with tribal stakeholders to take into consideration their preference of consultation method. We like the diversity it provides.”


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Chinook Duffy
Chinook Duffy
Submitted by Chinook Duffy on
FEMA's disinterest with tribes has nothing to do with a 'slow start,' its wholesale resistance to doing what the White House has ordered ALL federal agencies to do in regards to tribal consultation. FEMA has been investigated by two Senators for it's continual refusal to adhere to White House Executive Orders. As for Zimmerman, well, she's another political appointee which will be out the revolving door of FEMA HQ External Affairs. What this article doesn't reveal is the extremely HIGH turnover of FEMA External Affairs, -the leading division in charge of communicating with tribes. Since the two Director positions in FEMA HQ External Affairs are Political Appointee positions (EA Director and Intergovernmental Affairs Director), the turnover is frequent...which means unqualified, young, transient individuals who have ZERO interest in sticking around FEMA, let alone any real stake in tribal affairs. As for Milo, why is it that FEMA HQ devotes an full compliment of staff to 'Faith Based' yet nothing for Tribes? Why is it that Fugate and External Affairs continues to stick the solo tribal position below the IGA hierarchy...and not a stand alone Director position? Since 2009, the entire External Affairs Division has collapsed due to brutal back stabbing, gross racist profiling, and ran off all the staff. Fugate was briefed about it, yet EA has never recovered. See below comments for how FEMA continues with doing NOTHING for tribes. So, if FEMA was adhering to White House Tribal Consultation Executive Orders all along...why hasn't FEMA hired even ONE bonafide Tribal Liaison to any of it's 10 Regions? Despite recent Senate Hearing's to investigate FEMA's failed tribal interests, FEMA hasn't changed anything about their continued disinterest to follow federal law. FEMA trotted out 'Response & Recovery' at the Senate Hearing instead of sending an External Affairs staffer. E-A is the division which is 100% responsible for overseeing all FEMA-Tribal consultation interactions. FEMA sent a 'false' puppet to testify instead of E-A. There's two Directors in EA, one who manages Intergovernmental Affairs, and the other oversees External Affairs. Tribes need to demand 'why' FEMA refused to send either Director to testify before Senator Begich. And more questions remain unanswered: Why won't FEMA train and certify any of it's tribal liaisons (permanent hire or reservists)? Why does FEMA HQ National Cadre/Reservist Management send untrained, unqualified 'fake' tribal liaison reservists to Tribal Nations? Why won't FEMA External Affairs bother to give their new Tribal Liaison a full staff and divisional support? Why did FEMA allow a political appointee to racially attack External Affairs staff for years (Fugate was directly briefed about it)...and then promote that individual to a Director Position? How can FEMA legally give federal job titles to 'tribal liaisons' without any certified training? Why doesn't DHS demand a FULL investigation into FEMA's fake tribal titles and refusal to honor it's legal obligations to tribes? Tribes MUST DEMAND that FEMA only sends 100% certified, trained, 'real' tribal representatives to work with them. Tribes need to critically interview the so-called tribal backgrounds of personnel FEMA sends to them. So far, FEMA HQ has sent 'tribal liaisons' who have NO disaster experience, NO training, and ZERO tribal experience. -FEMA keeps trying to trick tribes into thinking they are getting quality help/assistance. Tribes have to stand their ground and demand real consultation. If tribes asked Fugate and every FEMA Regional Administrator if their Regional Tribal Liaisons were legit hires...FEMA would lie and cover up the truth.

Chinook Duffy
Chinook Duffy
Submitted by Chinook Duffy on
FEMA hasn't had a slow start, it just has no real interest in Indian Country. FEMA gives out federal job titles to unqualified personnel that are listed as tribal, yet given no training. FEMA has several Executive Orders to adhere and follow with tribal consultation, yet ignores them. 2 Senator's launched a formal investigation into FEMA's failed tribal actions, but nothing has changed. The agency finally hired a full time tribal liaison after 30+ of existing as an Agency, yet won't give Milo a full staff nor a stand alone (i.e. stuck in External Affairs) position. Yet Faith Based gets a full compliment of staff and support despite churches typically not able to claim/receive disaster assistance funding. Also, Fugate won't change the two Director positions in External Affairs from only being reserved for political appointees (young, inexperienced, ZERO emergency background experience) to non schedule C slots. The entire External Affairs division collapsed after years & years of transient political appointees ruining the Division through immature leadership. The last Intergovernmental Affairs Director was promoted to another Director position despite several claims/reports of racist bullying behavior. Even James Witt, -former FEMA Director, said that FEMA has to stop being a dumping ground for political appointees. Director positions should NOT be cushy reward slots for political campaign staffers! Constant overturn of management personnel destroys morale and stability. FEMA has a long track record of hiring and promoting personnel who have ZERO background in emergency management...which is well documented. FEMA has met with tribal leaders for YEARS with listening sessions, meetings, conference calls, etc...yet still doesn't hire and place bonafide tribal liaisons in their Regions. Not ONE Regional Tribal Liaison has been sent to ANY tribal liaison training, and none of them are Native. Same goes for FEMA training, no certification, and no support. FEMA HQ sends out non qualified, non tribal, no experience reservists to tribes; how is that considered real consultation? Zimmerman knows this and needs to fix it. The days of 'I didn't know' and 'we don't have money' excuses are over with...time to obey the law and stop lying to tribes about helping them.