Representative Haaland and Senator Warren: The federal government has a responsibility to write a new chapter in the story of its government-to-government relationship with tribal nations

A detailed legislative proposal is being released today that invites meaningful discussion with tribal leaders, tribal organizations, and others to craft legislation that takes a first step toward fully honoring the United States’ trust responsibilities

Representative Deb Haaland and Senator Elizabeth Warren

The story of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans is a profoundly painful one. It is a story of genocide and forced removal, of systematic oppression and broken promises. Despite this painful history, the story of Native American people today is also one of resilience in the face of oppression, achievement in every walk of life, and contribution to a country that has taken so much.

The federal government has a responsibility to write a new chapter in the story of the United States’ government-to-government relationship with tribal nations.

As Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said last year, “If the United States lived up to its commitments to support Indian Country in the ways that it has promised, tribal nations and governments could do so much more.”

That’s why today, we are taking action. We are developing legislation that will aim to fulfill the federal government’s responsibilities to Indian Country, and address the chronic underfunding of federal programs critical to the success and well-being of all Native American communities.

Throughout our country’s history, as the U.S. government forcibly removed Native peoples from their homelands and cut off tribal nations from resources they needed to live as self-governing entities, the U.S. government made a series of legal promises through treaty negotiations, executive orders, and Supreme Court decisions. These legal promises—to provide resources for housing, education, health care, self-determination, and public safety—are known as the federal government’s ‘Trust Responsibility.’ Despite these promises, the United States has repeatedly failed to meet its side of this unique relationship. It has broken treaty after treaty and promise after promise.

In December 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report titled Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans. The report highlighted five areas where the federal government has failed to fulfill its Trust Responsibility: criminal justice and public safety, health care, education, housing, and economic development.

President Keel notes that the Commission’s report “confirms what Indian Country knows too well”—federal programs aimed at Native communities are woefully underfunded. The report offers a blunt recommendation: “The United States expects all nations to live up to their treaty obligations; it should live up to its own.”

Broken Promises sent Congress an urgent call to action. We will work with Indian Country to respond to that call. Today we are releasing a detailed legislative proposal that invites meaningful discussion with tribal leaders, tribal organizations, and others to craft legislation that takes a first step toward fully honoring the United States’ trust responsibilities and ensuring the adequate government-to-government relationship owed to tribal nations. 

Our legislative proposal uses Broken Promises as a road map. It focuses on federal funding for the five areas covered by the report and proposes possible tools for ensuring that funding actually reaches Native nations and individuals in those communities.

Advocates like United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, National Indian Education Association, National Indian Health Board, and the National Council of Urban Indian Health have repeatedly urged Congress to fully fund Indian agencies and programs. Organizations like the National American Indian Housing Council have made clear that only substantial investments can address significant housing needs in Indian Country. Elected leaders like Chairperson Aaron Payment of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have described how Congressional dysfunction takes a heavy toll on tribal governments—and constitutes a federal failure to fulfill the Trust Responsibility. We have both witnessed firsthand the inadequacies in these processes as we have worked to secure greater investments in Indian Country.

Our legislation will address budgetary uncertainty for programs affecting tribal governments, so that sequestration, government shutdowns, and the whims of a divided Congress never imperil the fulfillment of the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities again. Our legislation will also ensure that Native American communities have a permanent voice at the highest levels of government. And it will make meaningful and timely tribal consultation the norm.

This proposal is an invitation for conversation and feedback, and we are listening. Because we are committed to using our voices in Congress to ensure the federal government fulfills its promises to Native people, we invite tribal leaders, tribal organizations, urban Indian organizations, tribal citizens, and stakeholders to engage with us as we craft legislation that will seek to honor America’s promises to Native peoples.

It’s time to take bold action to finally fulfill the promises our government has made, live up to our trust and treaty responsibilities, and deliver the investments that the U.S. government owes to Native peoples in exchange for all the land and resources that have become the United States of America. Native nations are working to advance solutions that will improve the well-being of their people across this country, and it’s time they had reliable partners in the fight. 

Representative Deb Haaland serves New Mexico’s First Congressional District and is one of the first Native American women serving in Congress. As a 35th generation New Mexican, single-mom, and organizer Haaland knows the struggles of New Mexico families, but she also knows how resilient and strong New Mexico communities are. In Congress she’s a force fighting climate change and for renewable energy jobs as Vice Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, a powerful supporter of military personnel, families, and veterans on the House Armed Services Committee, and continues to advocate for dignity, respect, and equality for all.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is one of the nation’s leading progressive voices, fighting for big structural change that would transform our economy and rebuild the middle class. Elizabeth was re-elected to the United States Senate for a second term on November 6, 2018, by the people of Massachusetts. Before becoming the first woman ever elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in 2012, she led the fight to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency established in the aftermath of the financial crisis to protect consumers from predatory financial products. Elizabeth is a Democratic candidate for President of the United States.​

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