Advocates, lawmakers hail Biden pledge to respect tribal sovereignty

by Sarah Oven, Cronkite News

Thursday, January 28, 2021

President Joe Biden on Tuesday signs a memorandum strengthening nation-to-nation relationships and directing federal agencies to more closely coordinate with tribes. The memo revives similar efforts from the Clinton and Obama administrations, but advocates called it a welcome change after the Trump administration. (Photo courtesy the White House) 

Washington, D.C. –   Native American policy experts and Arizona lawmakers welcomed President Joe Biden’s order calling for stronger relations with tribal governments, with one saying it “goes right along with what Indian country has been asking for.”

The memorandum, signed Tuesday, largely restores earlier executive orders set under the Clinton and Obama administrations that aimed to strengthen nation-to-nation relationships and require greater consultation between federal and tribal governments.

One lawmaker called it a welcome change after the “Trump administration’s blatant disregard of the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibilities to tribal governments” for the past four years. And Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis thanked Biden for fulfilling a pledge from the campaign trail.

“When I met with then-candidates Biden and (Vice President Kamala) Harris last summer, they both told me that the Gila River Indian Community and Indian Country would have a seat at the table,” Lewis said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “This Executive Order, one week into the Biden-Harris Administration, sets the right tone for the work we need to do together as governments.”

The Biden memorandum gives agencies 90 days to come up with a plan to work with tribes, calls on them to appoint an agency point person to work with tribal leaders and requires annual reports on their progress.

It largely reaffirms an executive order signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 2000 and renewed in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama. While it echoes the requirements of those orders, the Biden memo goes a step further by setting a timeline for action and quantifiable goals, said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University.

“What I really thought was great was he literally put smart goals to it, you know, strategic measurable, time-oriented… because there’s benchmarks to go with it, in making sure that his new agency heads create or reaffirm their particular processes and get that information back to them,” Morris said Wednesday.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, called Biden’s memorandum a welcome change after President Donald Trump, whose administration’s “blatant disregard of the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibilities to tribal governments has harmed tribal communities for the past four years.”

“We witnessed significant sacred ancestral sites blown to bits and federal protections wrongly stripped from sacred lands. In addition, we saw the failure of federal public health guidance during the pandemic result in the loss of tribal elders and community members,” Grijalva said in a statement, pointing to the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on Native Americans.

“Tribes must always have the seat at the table,” his statement said.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said he was “heartened” by the Biden memo and that he is “looking forward to working with the president to safeguard tribal sovereignty at all levels.”

“I have worked to ensure Congress lives up to its treaty and trust obligations and fosters positive nation-to-nation relationships,” O’Halleran said in an emailed statement.

Supporters called the memo a good first step, but said the federal government needs to follow through. Grijalva cited proposals like the RESPECT Act, which he said in his statement will codify the language of the executive orders and “ensure that tribes are proactively consulted,” while also streamlining bureaucracy tribes have to deal with and standardizing the consultation process.

Morris said it is “a little early to tell” what the next steps might be, but she said something permanent needs to be done for the government to live up to its obligations to tribes.

“I think in the long run, we really do need something that is meaningful and measurable for tribes because it’s not just picking up the phone and calling the first tribal person you meet, or sending an email to somebody in a department,” she said. “It really is in cooperation with government to government.”

This article published by Cronkite News on January 27, 2021. For more stories from Cronkite News, visit

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