Tribal Sovereignty Gets Big Boost in Obama’s New Budget

Donna Ennis

A historic event happened in Indian Country this month. As part of President Obama’s budget request to Congress, federal funding for tribal contract support costs (CSC) for three years beginning in 2017 will be moved from the “discretionary” to “mandatory non-discretionary” category within the federal budget. Contract support costs are critical to the administration of Indian Health Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This is a huge step in recognizing self-governance efforts by tribes and recognition of the government-to-government relationship based on a trust relationship.

President Obama has shown that he is seriously committed to taking action on Indian issues. He has brokered passage of the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act, and the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement. While other presidents have championed Indian causes that supported tribal sovereignty – most notably President Nixon who endorsed a self-determination plan for tribes that ushered in a new era in Indian Country – this effort will go a long way to support the trust relationship. Contrast that with George W. Bush who had this to say about his understanding of tribal sovereignty: “Tribal sovereignty means that. It’s sovereign. You’re… a…you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity. And therefore the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities.”

Beginning in 1787 and ending in 1871, nearly 400 treaties were signed between the United States and Indian tribes. The United States obtained the land that they wanted and promised to respect the independence of the tribes in exchange for food, supplies, health care, education and other services. This is known as the doctrine of trust responsibility and it has shaped federal Indian policy for many years. The trust responsibility is both a legal and a moral responsibility.

The annuity system has taken many forms as the system of the federal government has enacted laws to carry out his trust responsibility. Until 1946, when a legislative reorganization act abolished both the House and Senate committees on Indian Affairs, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs had been in existence since the early 19th century. After 1946, Indian affairs legislative and oversight jurisdiction was vested in subcommittees of the Interior and Insular Affairs committees of the House and the Senate.

While this subcommittee arrangement may not have specifically reflected a diminishment of consideration for Indian affairs by Congress, the revised arrangement coincided with a 20‑year hiatus in Indian affairs known as the “Termination Era,” a period in which the prevailing policy of the United States was to terminate the federal relationship with Indian tribes, including the transfer of jurisdiction over tribal lands to the states. By the mid‑1960s, this termination philosophy was in decline as a failed policy, and Congress began to include Indian tribes in legislation designed to rebuild the national infrastructure and provide economic opportunities for economically depressed areas. In the early 1970s, the termination era was decisively ended with the enactment of the Menominee Restoration Act of 1973. Although a number of legislative initiatives affecting Indians were enacted in the early 1970s, it became clear that the existing subcommittee structure was not providing an adequate forum for legislating appropriate solutions to problems confronting Indian country.

Legislative jurisdiction over Indian affairs was fragmented among a number of committees. Overall, more than 10 committees in Congress were responsible for Indian affairs, a situation that resulted in a sometimes disjointed treatment of Indian affairs and in an often haphazard development of federal Indian policy.

In 1977, the Senate re‑established the committee as a temporary Select Committee on Indian Affairs. The Select Committee was to disband at the close of the 95th Congress, but following several term extensions, the Senate voted to make the committee permanent on June 6, 1984.

The committee has jurisdiction to study the unique problems of American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native peoples and to propose legislation to alleviate these difficulties. These issues include Indian education, economic development, land management, trust responsibilities, health care, and claims against the United States. Additionally, all legislation proposed by members of the Senate that pertains to American Indians, Native Hawaiians, or Alaska Natives is under the jurisdiction of the committee.

Indian Country is again experiencing support of the federal government in recognition of their trust responsibility. U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Jon Tester (D-MT), chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, recently introduced the bipartisan Department of the Interior Tribal Self-Governance Act of 2015 (S. 286). The bill amends the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and streamlines the self-governance process, making it easier and more efficient for tribes to carry out federal programs.

“Self-determination and self-governance help promote local tribal decision-making for important programs that affect their communities,” said Sen. Barrasso about the new bill. “For years, tribes have faced bureaucratic roadblocks when trying to implement these programs. By making key improvements to the way self-governance works in the Department of the Interior, this bill gives tribes the tools they need to tailor federal programs to the needs of their local communities.”

Sen. Tester said, “Time and again we’ve seen that tribal leaders and councils who are elected to serve their communities are best equipped to help folks on the ground. This bill gives tribal governments the flexibility they need for greater self-governance so they can address the unique needs of their tribes. Indian Country deserves our full support for this bill.”

These efforts are applauded, and tribes are going to continue to demand that Congress uphold the trust responsibility in honoring the treaties by permanently enacting this legislation to make CFC funds mandatory.

Donna Ennis is the Community Center Manager for Fond du Lac Reservation where she is also a respected Tribal Elder. She is working on her Master’s degree in Tribal Administration and Governance at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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