Briefing Book

What Will America First Mean for the First Americans?

Despite his undeniably problematic history with Native Americans, Trump has done little to acknowledge them since taking office.

By Douglas Steiger

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Given his grave concerns about the threat of immigrants to this country, you might think, logically, that President Trump would sympathize with the first Americans—the American Indians and Alaska Natives who can rightfully see the rest of us as immigrants. But his most well-known encounter with Indians prior to entering the White House would not suggest this. Back in 1993, President Trump testified before a House subcommittee and, in his now-familiar caustic fashion, accused Indian-operated casinos of being infiltrated by organized crime. He went on to suggest that some of the tribes running casinos were not really Indian because they simply “didn’t look like Indians” to him.

Still, that was a quarter-century ago and perhaps these comments just reflected the sharp elbows of a businessman who saw Indian gaming as a rival for his own casinos. Trump has said little about American Indians and Alaska Natives since becoming a politician, or since entering the White House.

From the perspective of tribal leaders, Trump has a tough act to follow when it comes to securing better rights for their people. Brian Cladoosby, President of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), claimed earlier this year that the Obama Administration had managed to create “the most successful government to government relationship Indian people have enjoyed since the formation of the United States.” Given the long history of forced relocation, broken treaties, and cultural destruction that tribes have suffered, this may admittedly be a low bar.

Still, since the 1970s, the federal government has been pursuing a policy of “self-determination” for Indian tribes. This means building up the capacity of tribal governments to govern their own communities and giving tribes resources and flexibility to do so in accordance with their own culture. This means that federal programs on the reservations must work with and through tribal governments.

President Obama’s record of achievements in this area is too long to list here but some highlights include:

  • Instituting annual Tribal Nations Conferences that included allocated meeting times with the President himself every year;
  • Signing into law important legislation to combat domestic violence on reservations; and,
  • Increasing funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS) by more than 40 percent.

You can learn more about these measures here. (Full disclosure: I was involved in some of these efforts, particularly those related to IHS, as a senior appointee at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.) That’s not to say that the Administration was able to resolve all issues, such as quality of care problems at some IHS facilities, but the overall record is, all things considered, a good one.

Yet one hope some tribes are holding onto in the Trump era relates to the Administration’s promised massive investment in infrastructure and the chance that it might include resources for them—fixing beat-up reservation roads and rehabilitating or replacing housing for tribal members. The NCAI recently released a report outlining the huge unmet infrastructure need of Indian Country and the potential return for a serious investment in it. On the other hand, they continue to fear the impact an eventual, potentially successful repeal of the Affordable Care Act would have on reservation health care. For example, IHS bills Medicaid for American Indians and Alaska Natives enrolled in the program, thus drawing more resources into the under-funded system, about $800 million in FY 2016 alone. Under something like the recently considered Trumpcare bill, this funding source would significantly diminish, necessarily leading to cutbacks at IHS.

To date, the main challenges Indian groups have faced as a result of the new Administration have involved energy—the approval of the Dakota Access pipeline, the looming closure of the Navajo Generating Station coal plant, and concerns about the impact of climate change on many Alaska villages.

However, as important as these are for particular individual tribes and Alaska Native villages, they do not impact the vast majority of American Indians, at least in the immediate present. There are over 500 American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages and they represent a range of sizes and circumstances. But they also all represent community governments that want to provide, at the very least, the basics for their people—economic development, health care, transportation, public safety, etc. To ensure this, most remain dependent on some measure of federal help, either in the form of funds to administer themselves or direct federal services. Which is to say, the federal budget matters greatly to them.

We have, so far, only seen the initial “skinny” budget the Administration put forward in March, which says little about Indian programs beyond “support” for “core” Indian programs at the Department of the Interior and the IHS. Despite a rhetoric of “support” in skinny budget, there is clear reason for concern that the full budget will propose substantial reductions, however. How much room for “support” can there really be when Interior is being cut by an overall 12 percent and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) by 13 percent? How will IHS and social service programs like Head Start that fund tribes fare at HHS under 18 percent department-wide cuts. Simple math suggests that such tough cuts will be coming.

In fact, the Trump Administration has already reportedly proposed an immediate $25 million reduction in preventive health services at IHS during the current fiscal year as part of their negotiations to resolve FY 2017 appropriations. These funds currently support public health nurses and community health representatives who reach out directly to tribal members—a particularly important role on poorer reservations where access to cars and public transportation is limited, making it harder for people to get to clinics on their own.

Indian tribes do have some well-placed allies in Congress, such as Rep. Tom Cole and Senator Lisa Murkowski on the Appropriations Committee. So even if the Trump Administration proposes severe cuts affecting these tribes, they may be stopped by the appropriators refusing to make them. But it would be a shame for tribes to have to spend their limited resources and energy to block cuts, instead of being able to build on the progress of the last few years. While some tribes are doing relatively well, due to gaming or natural resources, or simply thanks to skilled entrepreneurship, many of our First Americans are still fighting for much of the same opportunity and security many of us take for granted, like good jobs and good schools and even good roads. Rates of alcoholism and youth suicide among American Indians and Alaska Natives remain sadly high, no doubt in large part due to the historical trauma they and their ancestors have suffered.

As the trail of broken treaties attests, we owe the First Americans a great debt. But it’s not just about morality—American Indians and Native Alaskans have much more to contribute to our country today if we give them the chance to do so. We need to work with tribal leaders to make that happen.

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Douglas Steiger served for seven years at HHS in the Obama Administration, including four as the Counselor to the Secretary for Human Services. Prior to that, he was a Senate aide for 12 years, including seven at the Senate Finance Committee.

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