NCAI director talks current Indian Country, federal relationship

NCAI director talks current Indian Country, federal relationship
(NCAI website) National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Pata spoke with hosts Gary Fife and Jason Salsman May 30 on ‘Mvskoke Radio.’

Sterling Cosper/Manager

Nominees, budget, consultation discussed on ‘Mvskoke Radio’

OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — One key federal Indian Country nominee finally advances while another position has yet to see an introduction.

Communication between Natives and the feds appears dicey as does the U.S. administration’s understanding of tribes’ legal status and how to communicate with them.

Cap all this off with a troubling proposed budget.

These were some of the key issues National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Pata discussed May 30 with ‘Mvskoke Radio’ hosts Gary Fife and Jason Salsman by phone from the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.


The budget

Pata said the Trump administration communicated that its proposed budget was a, “messaging document.”

“Of course we were concerned about that message and wanted to make sure that the appropriations committees were rallying behind Indian Country and once again, I have to say the House appropriators have just been amazing,” she said.

She said Congress had the greatest influence over the budget priorities of Indian Country and that potential cuts were restored in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“On the Senate side we’ve seen a lot of support in the same way,” Pata said. “So I think Indian Country despite what may have come out of the administration’s proposed budget, we’re at least seeing some really strong improvements being proposed by Congress.”

Pata said some areas that were still cause for concern involved matters of climate resilience through the Environmental Protection Agency and Indian Country being prioritized for Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act funds and opioid abuse resources.

With NAHASDA funds, she said her concerns lay with how funds were distributed rather than the amount available.

“And one issue is wanting that on a competitive basis rather than honoring the formula distribution model,” Pata said.

Pata stated similar priorities regarding opioid crisis funding.

“We want to make sure that tribes are not having to go through states in order to get their money or compete to get the money to address the issues that they need to deal with,” she said.

Pata also pushed the importance of tribal involvement with lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical companies and vendors for their alleged role in the matter, “because out of it will come some resources that will be distributed among the players.”

She said it was important for tribes to be able to administer EPA programs on their own.


Governments or a race

One recent funding issue was also tied to how tribes were recognized through administration policy next to what they were considered under the law.

“One was that one of the earliest budgets that the administration sent out identified what they called race-based programs and what was in there was Indian education and housing program and we were like, ‘wait an minute. Why are these included in there? These are based on the treaty and trust obligations to federal tribes,’ ” Pata said.

The matter centered on tribes being treated as sovereign governments by federal programs rather than a racial group like with what had happened regarding the education and housing programs.

“We thought that was done and then when the CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) came out and said on the work requirements and said that tribes couldn’t be exempted and that they would be considered a race-based issue, we were like, ‘wait a minute. Is this a larger administrative policy?’ ” Pata said.

She said NCAI reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice and were ultimately supported in their political status through advocacy by members of Congress.

“And we got a rule back from the administration that basically said that the state could come forward with tribal exemptions that could be considered based on tribal status,” Pata said.

She said this misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty could also be seen with the failure of the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act in Congress.

“It was based on basic acknowledgement of tribal sovereignty having to do with the rights of unions to organize similarly to states in tribal communities,” Pata said.

Pata said all of these instances reflected a need for education about Indian Country and that NCAI is going to discuss how to pursue this during its midyear meeting.

“Something that we really have to be diligent about is really recognizing that it’s our neighbors, it’s our friends it’s the people in our communities. Everybody influences politics at some point and they all need to understand the basis of our relationship,” she said.

Pata said there is curriculum that federal employees who deal with tribes are required to take to educate them about proper administration in Indian Country but she is not sure it is being enforced.

“We’ve made concerted efforts about educating members of the Congress and I think that we’ve made some good traction but it still surprises me when it comes up to a vote that sometimes people may theoretically understand but philosophically have not made that connection yet,” Pata said.


(MN File Photo)



Along with education, Pata said communication in general has been one of the biggest issues with the federal government.

“So we hear things that come out for example from the Department of Interior and there have been statements that have been made by the secretary and tribes are like, ‘what do they mean by that?’ ” she said. “And we go back to the department and they say, ‘well that’s not what we meant, you just misunderstood.’ ”

Pata said during the reorganization period at the White House, the Office of Management and Budget called for a restructuring plan by the end of last June and the DOI did not consult with tribes for theirs.

“And now we hear that Secretary (Ryan) Zinke has a reorganization plan that doesn’t include tribes,” she said. “When we ask Secretary Zinke and the department they say, ‘well it doesn’t include tribes because we’re not sure how we want to include them or what we want to do with them but we want to hear from you.’ ”

She said the DOI has expressed interest in having consultations but the tribes have gone to Congressional appropriators to ensure their place in the upcoming budget.

“Don’t let them spend any money this fiscal year ’19, any appropriation money coming up until they’ve had meaningful consultation, any money having to do with reorganizing or moving or relocating people,” Pata said.


Federal appointments

Pata said a big part of proper communication is having top agency positions filled. Alaska Native Tara Sweeney has been nominated for the position of assistant secretary of Indian Affairs within the DOI.

“A lot of decisions get postponed or the right person that is going to make decisions later isn’t there to participate in those confirmations listening directly to the tribes and so I think one way or another the committee needs to do its work, which it’s poised to do and make a decision and move forward with Tara’s nomination,” she said.

An Alaska Native herself, Pata acknowledged concerns about Sweeney’s lower 48 experience but said part of making the right choice is hiring someone who will hire the right people themselves.

“But because no person has experience in all areas no matter what and that’s why you rely on a good team for,” she said.

As of the airdate, Pata said there is still no nomination in play for Indian Health Services secretary.

“IHS is doing some amazing work and there’s a lot of improvement that needs to be done in other areas,” Pata said. “Once again, communication is one of the key areas of improvement but I think, someone like me, I look at that challenge as an exciting opportunity and I hope somebody out there who is listening will think, ‘this is an exciting opportunity, I want to put my name forward.’ ”


STERLING COSPER Mvskoke Media Manager 918.732.7697 | Sterling was born in Wichita, Kan., and graduated from Wichita State University. His father’s side of the family is based out of Henryetta, Okla., and he started as a reporter with ‘Muscogee Nation News’ in January 2012. He is a music fan, mostly of the instrumental jazz and world genres when he is busy and a broad variety of others when he is not.

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