Elizabeth Warren says US has a ‘moral obligation’ to Indian Country

Updated: Elizabeth Warren offers 19-page policy plan for Indian Country

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, rolls out her 19-page policy plan for Indian Country less than three days away from a historic Native presidential forum in Iowa.

Her new plan is a comprehensive legislative proposal called the “Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act” that she and Rep. Debra Haaland, Laguna Pueblo and D-New Mexico, worked on together. Haaland publicly endorsed the senator late last month.

Warren’s policy plan came three weeks after Julián Castro released his “People First Indigenous Communities” policy. But Warren’s is a little more thorough.

Along with the 19-page proposal, there are the 20 pages of legislative appendices, and a 1-page summary. 

(ICYMI: Haaland calls Warren ‘a great friend … and a great partner for Indian Country’)

Haaland said it's time for the government to live up to its responsibility. 

“Native American communities have endured a long history of oppression and broken promises – from blankets laced in disease to times when my grandparents and others in their communities were taken away from their families and put into boarding schools – the federal government has failed to live up to it responsibility to Native Nations to provide support for basic necessities in exchange for land and mass extermination of Native people,” Haaland said. “Congress will have an opportunity to address the longstanding failures of the federal government. This legislative proposal is the vehicle to further the conversation about what Indian Country needs for these promises to be adequately fulfilled, and to empower tribal governments to serve their people. The federal government must honor its promises.”

Besides having the help from Laguna Pueblo leader who has actively been fighting for Native communities at the federal level since inauguration day, Warren’s proposal “Honoring Promises” stems from two reports released by the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

The first report came out in 2003 revealing the “unmet needs” in Indian Country. A follow-up report “Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans” was released last December. It looked at how far the needle was moved in Indian Country -- it barely moved.

The chair of the commission, Catherine E. Lhamon released a statement addressing Warren's policy plan.

“With the release of our report, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called for immediate Congressional action to ensure Native Americans and Native Hawaiians live, work, and learn with the same expectations for opportunity and equality to which all other Americans have access,” Lhamon said. “We are grateful that Senator Warren and Representative Haaland heard that urgent call, and we look forward to working with them on legislation to address the Commission’s recommendations.”

Warren said the government must “end the neglect” and “as a nation, we are failing in our legal, political, and moral obligations toward tribal governments and Indigenous peoples.”

Part of ending the neglecting for the senator is acknowledging the history of Native people. “Native history is American history,” she says and supports it being part of the curriculum in public schools across the country.

If anything, the 19 pages exemplify that the senator understands the needs of tribal nations and sees them as political entities and sovereign nations, not a race. But she’s also realistic.

“This legislation will not address every major policy issue of concern to tribal nations and Indigenous communities,” she said in the policy. “But it will represent an urgently needed and long-overdue step toward ensuring that the United States finally, and for the first time, fully meets its resource obligations to Indian Country.”

Within each policy area Warren reinforces the nation-to-nation relationship, tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Keeping that in mind, she wants to receive input from tribal citizens, tribal leaders, stakeholders, the public, and experts before Congress looks at the final product.

The entire plan can be broken down into five areas: Native history, treaty and trust obligations, resources for Indian Country, structural changes, and policy areas.

The policy areas of Warren’s plan focus on:

  • Economic development (physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure, financial infrastructure, business development, small businesses)
  • Economic opportunity (marijuana)
  • Climate change
  • Housing
  • Health care (guaranteed funding, adequate providers, chronic disease, behavioral health, Medicaid, transition to Medicare for All, public health, urban Indian health)
  • Education (universal child care, Bureau of Indian Education schools, K-12 support, curriculum inclusion, Generation Indigenous, free public college, funding for tribal colleges and universities)
  • Native Veterans
  • Public Safety and Criminal Justice (crimes on Native land, tribal courts)
  • Missing and murdered Indigenous women
  • Tribal lands and tribal sovereignty (tribal land interests)
  • Voting rights

What different from hers and others?

While Warren, like others who have rolled out plans, hers stands out in several ways: length, a change in funding stream, proposal of cabinet-level position, a policy for suicide, address land loss via allotment, tackling child abuse, addressing mental health, a proposal for how to fund law enforcement programs and give more tribal courts jurisdiction, the inclusion of Native youth, establishing an alert program for missing Indigenous women, making sure Native veterans receive services, and fighting the Religous Freedom Restoration Act that counters the American Indian Religous Freedom Act from 1978.

The Massachusetts senator says structural change is needed because “I know that when it comes to government decisions, it matters who’s in the room -- and what authority they have.”

That’s why she proposes “a permanent, cabinet-level White House Council on Native American Affairs.” The chairperson would make sure the administration would “meet their obligations to Indian Country regardless of who is President” and establish the annual White House Tribal Nations conference that former President Barack Obama started.

The annual conference and position within the cabinet may be the answer for tribal leaders who have been asking to speak with the president.

Related: ‘Horrible’ White House session raises ‘serious issues’ with tribal leaders

Structural changes

The senator’s plan would address the severe inadequate funding Indian Country has known for decades. Besides wanting to fully fund the Indian Health Service, she wants to lift the budget out of the appropriations process.

“Honoring Promises will seek to end the problem of inadequate funding by removing these programs from the traditional appropriations process and instead ensuring predictable, guaranteed funding for all of these vital initiatives – no matter the circumstances in Washington,” she said. “Trust and treaty obligations do not vanish because of political games in Washington; federal funding must no longer vanish for these reasons, either.”

This could avoid future government shutdowns that affected IHS and its contractors earlier this year. An example was Native American Lifelines, which is an urban health clinic located in Baltimore and Boston contracted through IHS. The clinic had to suspend some of its services and dip into its reserve funds to continue operating during the shutdown.

(Related: Congressional hearing looks at the impact of shutdown on Indian Country)

Warren wants to establish a new White House Budgetary Office that would “help consult with tribes, and track and advance government-wide progress toward meeting the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities” in funding for Native programs.

Another structural change is adding a deputy secretary to the Department of Interior who reports to the Secretary and “has cross-cutting authority across departments, a special envoy on Indigenous peoples issues within the State Department, and the establishment of additional Deputy Secretaries for tribal nations in other federal departments.” This is important because it allows Native people to be at the seat of the table and more involved in the federal decision-making process.

Listen out for tribal governments input on this next structural change. The policy plan calls for “ensuring timely consultation with tribal nations on federal policy.” Timely is an interesting word choice as many tribal leaders know that with the way things operate now, it’s slow. But Warren’s new RESPECT Act wants to set processes in place or maybe make the processes more clear cut so tasks can get done.

Supporters of the policy play are rallying behind her. Supporters who released comments of support include President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians, Board Chairman Gary Cooper of the National American Indian Housing Council, the National Indian Education Association, the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, President Gil Vigil of the National Indian Child Welfare Association Board of Directors, the National Indian Gaming Association, Chairman Pete Upton of the Native CDFI Network, Seattle Indian Health Board's Government Affairs Officer Aren Sparck, Chairman Robert Miguel of the Ak-Chin Indian Community, E. Paul Torres of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Tribal Chairman Bob Peters of the Gun Lake Tribe,  Tribal Chairman and CEO W. Ron Allen of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Chairman Rodney Butler of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, President Julian Bear Runner of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Rosebud Sioux Tribe President Rodney Bordeaux, Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, Chairman Arnold Cooper of the Squaxin Island Tribe, Chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Chairman Anthony Roberts of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, CEO Wizipan Little Elk of the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians of Oregon.

When you compare Warren’s policy plan with Castro, Sanders, and Williamson, it’s carefully created for Native people. Again, it’s 19 pages long with attention to detail in laws that have worked and not worked for Indian Country. That includes changing up the way those laws were made: non-Natives making laws for Natives who do not understand or barely understand Native issues. She even threw “living up to the principles” of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, international law created by the United Nations, that Obama supported but didn’t make it legally binding. We’ll see what Warren does.

“Structural change means truly integrating Indigenous voices and values into our policy decisions,” she said. “We must ensure that America’s sacred trust and treaty obligations are the law of the land - binding legal and moral principles that are not merely slogans, but instead reinforce the solemn nation-to-nation relationships with Tribal Nations. 

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)=

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