AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Donald Trump speaking at Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.

Trump, GOP Platform Bad News for Tribal Nations

Suzette Brewer

It was a long, bitter week at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland―an event that was supposed to be the coronation of Donald J. Trump as the party’s nominee and a celebration of unity after a year-long, contentious primary season in which 17 candidates had winnowed to one.

Instead, the atmosphere inside Quicken Loans Arena was marked by open, internecine warfare within the party, charges of plagiarism, disorganization and nonsensical programming headlined by a colorful array of nightly speakers plucked from reality shows and Trump’s own company, capped off by Ted Cruz’s refusal to endorse his party’s nominee in a 20-minute speech that sparked a global media frenzy and elicited boos from the convention floor.

Outside the arena, protesters, convention-goers, tourists and locals mingled in an uneasy, if cordial, atmosphere under the watchful eye of sniper teams positioned on rooftops throughout the city and thousands of law enforcement officers who had come to town from across the country to assist the Cleveland Police Department with managing security for event.

On Wednesday afternoon, about three dozen tribal leaders and their staffs attended a luncheon hosted by the Mashantucket Pequots of Massachusetts aboard a boat on Lake Erie. Against a backdrop of convention drama, the tribes gathered in a “calm and business-like” atmosphere to discuss the many policy issues confronting their governments in the near and long-term.

Taken as an article of faith among the group in attendance was the importance of maintaining tribal sovereignty and working with Congress and the President to uphold federal trust and treaty obligations regardless of who occupies the Oval Office―or which party controls Congress―come January 2017.

“We’re here doing the business of our respective governments in letting those who are here know that we have a seat at the table, regardless of party politics,” said Todd Hembree, attorney general for the Cherokee Nation. “For Indian tribes, it’s not a binary choice of ‘Democrats’ or ‘Republicans,’ but the effort to engage and educate individuals who understand our issues that are in play regardless of who’s in the oval office.”

Acknowledging that Indian gaming usually attracts most of the attention in the national dialogue about Indian people, Hembree said that the tribal gatherings throughout the week were more policy-driven than political in regards to health, education, housing and economic development that impact the daily lives of Native communities across the country.

“That’s what most people want to talk about but we have many more burning issues aside from gaming to contend with in our respective [tribal nations] and we came here to let everyone know that we have a government-to-government relationship with Congress and the President and that they are going to have to deal with us,” Hembree said. “So we’ve been forward-looking in terms of committee appointments and chairmanships in Congress, as well as working with the federal agencies in continuing to fulfill the obligations of the federal government to the country’s Indian nations.”

Healthcare, for example, is one of the biggest challenges confronting tribal nations, many of whom are struggling to meet demand with understaffed clinics and hospitals across the country that are bursting at the seams with long waits and an overloaded, underfunded system.

In June, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), introduced his healthcare plan, “A Better Way,” in which he hopes to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act (which specifically included the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act) and replace it with his own plan that would remove the IHIC and require Indian people to buy their own private insurance.

RELATED: Paul Ryan’s Call for Indian Health ‘Choices’ Would Be a Disaster

Critics of the plan, including Hembree, take issue with the bill that would further defund critical health services tribal nations provide to their members, which are already underfunded. Further, they contend that many Indian people live well below the poverty line and would struggle to afford health insurance premiums in communities that have few resources or economic development.

“The Cherokee Nation is building a $170 million expansion to our hospital in Tahlequah that will change the way healthcare is provided to our citizens for generations,” Hembree said. “Under our current agreement, the tribe is expected to receive $75 million a year for the next 30 years for healthcare. But Ryan’s plan would gut the funding for our providers and that can’t happen. So we fully expect the government to uphold those agreements because those are not entitlements or line item expenditures―they are legally-binding treaty obligations to Indian people.”

Another issue arising from the convention was the inclusion of a nebulous, unspecific provision to turn over all federal lands to the states in the Republican National Convention platform.

“Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states,” reads the sweeping proposal. “We call upon all national and state leaders and representatives to exert their utmost power and influence to urge the transfer of those lands, identified in the review process, to all willing states for the benefit of the states and the nation as a whole. The residents of state and local communities know best how to protect the land where they work and live.”

The privatization issue, however, is a hot button for many tribal nations, whose ancestral lands are contained within many national parks, wildlife refuges and public lands, including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone.

The issue has been on previous Republican platforms, but was reignited earlier this year during the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, which is the ancestral lands of the Northern Paiute tribes, including the Burns Paiute.

During the siege, militants defiled grounds known to be culturally sensitive by digging trenches and latrines that contained a “significant amount” of human feces.

“Tribes look to the federal government as partners and stewards of the hundreds of millions of acres in ancient lands that they inhabited, owned or occupied for many millennia,” said one tribal leader in attendance. “This is not just a matter of simply signing a deed of ownership over to the states―these lands are tribal lands that have been placed under federal protection in perpetuity as a solemn promise to Indian people and we do not want to see them destroyed and exploited. We want them protected as a part of our national heritage for everyone to enjoy.”

With the Democratic National Convention beginning today, tribal members and their government leaders from across the country will be gathering again in Philadelphia to send some of the same messages to the other side of the aisle.

“It’s an ongoing effort with every election cycle,” Hembree said. “But our job is to educate and engage both parties so that they have a clear understanding on the issues that face the tribes so that we can work more effectively with them when we have to do the hard, gritty, everyday work when Congress is in session. We need to make sure both sides of the aisle are on the same page.”

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