The Biden administration will restore the White House Council on Native American Affairs, an interagency initiative that coordinates federal services and policies that impact tribal nations. The council was first launched under former President Obama, but went dark for most of the Trump years.
The announcement comes as the Biden administration promises to usher in a "new era" of relations between tribes and the federal government, and to give tribal leaders a true voice in federal Indian policy. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently told tribal leaders they can expect engagement from every government agency.
"For too long, Indian issues were relegated only to the Indian Affairs bureaus," Haaland said last week in New Mexico at a meeting with the All Pueblo Council of Governors. "If we are going to make sure that tribal communities thrive, that tribal sovereignty is respected and strengthened, and if we are truly to repair our nation-to-nation relationships, that means every bureau and every office must think about our country's trust obligations to Indian tribes."
The revival of the council is a step in that direction, according to Jonodev Osceola Chaudhuri, who serves as the Muscogee Creek Tribe's ambassador to Congress and held multiple Interior Department roles under the Obama administration. He says the council, and its annual conference with tribal leaders, gave structure and accountability to the administration's relationship with tribes.
"Each of the cabinet secretaries was expected to attend [the annual conference] and be prepared to present on what their respective department had done to advance federal self-determination goals for Indian Country," Osceola Chaudhuri said. "If you have a deadline in place for deliverables to be shared in a public setting, you work very hard to make sure that those deliverables get done and aren't just lip service."
He said that when the council "fell off the map" under former President Trump, tribal interests and priorities were largely ignored.
Gail Small is an advisor to the University of Montana's American Indian Governance and Policy Institute and a former Northern Cheyenne tribal council member. She says that lack of engagement from the Trump administration hampered coronavirus pandemic response in Indian Country.
"We've seen the dismantling of the federal trust relationship at a crucial time of pandemic and it's been devastating for Indian tribes," Small said. "It is critically important that this Council on Native American Affairs really steps up their efforts to assist us in further responding to the pandemic, but also rebuilding. Economic recovery has to occur on Indian reservations."
Tribal leaders are looking forward to the opportunity to share their priorities with the council, and to an in-person audience with federal officials during the council's Tribal Nations Conference, which was also suspended during the Trump years. The White House confirmed to Indian Country Today on Friday that the conference will be restored if the pandemic eases by the end of the year.
Gabe Aguilar, president of the Mescalero Apache Tribe, called these revivals the latest in a series of early indicators that Biden takes seriously the federal trust responsibility to tribes.
"What it means is that our voice is going to be respected and we're going to have input on issues that could help Native country or improve Native country or that could hurt Native country," Aguilar said.
The White House Council on Native American Affairs will convene for the first time under the Biden administration next Friday, April 23, with Secretary Haaland serving as chair.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.