Despite gains, tribal nations strive for greater involvement in national affairs

Camila Pedrosa

Cronkite News

Tribal governments have “a foot in the door” with the federal government, but they don’t yet have a seat at the table where decisions about them are made, the president of the American Indian National Congress said Monday.

Fawn Sharp’s comments came during the annual State of the Indian Address, in which she outlined tribal communities’ progress over the past year and NCAI’s priorities for the year ahead.

Sharp called on the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty by including Indigenous leaders in discussions on everything from climate change to infrastructure to economic recovery.

“From administration to federal legislatures to state governors, it is your duty to respect our right to self-government, to work with us for the good of the people we serve, and to honor this country’s obligations of trust and treaty to the fullest infuse with tribal nations,” Sharp said.

Several Arizona tribe leaders did not respond to requests for comment on Sharp’s speech Monday.

Sharp, a member of the Quinault Indian Nation, also noted the fact that six Native Americans have been appointed to offices in the Biden administration, which she says is the most ever. But that’s just a start, she said.

“It’s not enough to have a foot in the door,” Sharp said. “Tribal nations must have a seat at the table where important decisions are made.”

Indigenous representatives are also making their way into Congress, with five current members of the House of Representatives being tribal or Native Hawaiians. Among them is Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kan, who delivered this year’s Congressional response to Sharp’s speech.

Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, chairs the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus with Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. She said the caucus works to educate Congress on issues facing tribal communities and ensure their priorities are front and center in policy discussions.

One of the priorities Sharp emphasized is engaging tribes in the development of vital infrastructure on indigenous lands.

She commended Congress for passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill last November, which earmarks $13 billion for projects such as developing clean water resources and expanding broadband services in indigenous countries. But Sharp said the federal government must continue to support talks with tribal leaders and work to use those resources efficiently.

“Consultation is simply non-negotiable,” she said. “I call on the Biden administration to ensure that tribal nations are consulted with free, prior and informed consent to ensure that the infrastructure planning that is taking place in this country embeds tribal nation feedback into every draft.”

Sharp credited the law’s investment in Indigenous lands to the work Indigenous leaders and advocates have done to enlist federal government support. Davids agreed, saying the caucus members had “worked diligently” to ensure the infrastructure bill included the Indian country’s funding needs.

“I’ve been absolutely careful to communicate every single meeting that we’ve had throughout the negotiations … those resources have to be there,” Davids said.

Sharp also said that indigenous people are key to progress in the fight against climate change. Traditional land management systems developed by Indigenous communities can help protect tribal lands and resources from natural disasters, she said, citing wildfire prevention practices California had inherited from the Karuk tribe.

“It is our sovereign right to manage and protect our resources,” Sharp said. “And it is the job of the federal government to ensure that this is done through cooperation agreements between states and federal states.”

She said Indigenous peoples’ deep knowledge of the planet’s biodiversity also gives them a unique opportunity to help with the climate crisis on an international scale.

Last year, Sharp became the first tribal leader to be part of the US delegation to the United Nations climate conference, which she says sets a precedent for including indigenous peoples in future international climate conferences.

“A new opportunity is emerging for tribal nations in the world following the post-pandemic economic recovery to be part of this global conversation,” Sharp said. “The sovereignty of our tribal nations requires that we join the discussion.”

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