by Maggie Dunne, LCE President and Founder
“As we work together to forge a brighter future for all Americans, we cannot ignore a history of mistreatment and destructive policies that have hurt tribal communities. The United States seeks to continue restoring and healing relations with Native Americans and to strengthen its partnership with tribal governments, for our more recent history demonstrates that tribal self-determination — the ability of tribal governments to determine how to build and sustain their own communities — is necessary for successful and prospering communities. We further recognize that restoring tribal lands through appropriate means helps foster tribal self-determination.”
–June 26, 2013 Presidential Order of Barack Obama
It has the potential to bring about systemic social change. Among other things, the Order defines a “national policy” of more effectively carrying out its trust responsibilities, promoting and sustaining prosperous and resilient tribal communities, incorporating consultation with tribes into the process, honoring treaties and recognizing tribes’ inherent sovereignty and right to self-government. The Order directs the Council to focus on ways to improve relations and communications with American Indians, to create a more equitable future where self-determination is respected and past wrongs are corrected. President Obama has done more to improve relations and to open dialogues with Native American communities than any other President and this Order demonstrates his personal commitment to change.
Considering the context of over a century of breached treaties, trust obligations and atrocities committed in the name of Manifest Destiny, forced removals of children, massacres of unarmed men and women which were taught as “battles,” and, more recently, the involuntary serialization of tribal women and the complete neglect of legal, trust and treaty obligations that have left some reservations without access to clean water, adequate housing, educational support or health care, the skepticism is understandable.
Progress and reconciliation, however, must start somewhere and this Presidential Order is a pretty decent start.
Although the Presidential Order does not create substantive rights, it puts the improvement of American Indian relations and the fulfillment of rights as “national policies” and specifically recognizes the importance of “restoring tribal lands through appropriate means,” for example. As such, it may be used to support tribal requests for discretionary United States Government action to preserve and return sacred lands, or to support requests for fiscal appropriations supporting essential services. Although the Council does not have spending power, it has suasion, oversight authority and the ability to shape the way that money is being spent (or not spent) by the various agencies.
Although by no means a complete solution, the Order represents a significant and historic step: The President of the United States has directed his Administration to focus on the process of reconciliation, healing, improving the fractured system now in place, and the Council has the capacity to alter policies — to create a future that values Native American’s rights and operates in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation. If this Presidential Order was only a “feel good” gesture, then it could have – and would have — said much less.
There is a crisis of poverty, inequality and disadvantage facing many American Indian communities that many Americans either do not know about, or do not care to learn about. As a United Nations Human Rights Investigation concluded last Fall, some of our elected officials are as ignorant as the general public about the obstacles and obligations to American Indian communities. The public needs to be educated and the system needs an overhaul, with more input from the American Indian communities affected by government action. This Council has the capacity to shape that overhaul and to profoundly improve the system for American Indian children and tribal communities.
Will change happen over night? Not likely, but the Council must be given an opportunity to do its potentially groundbreaking work. The creation of the Native American Council forces the mainstream to at least periodically examine US Government action (and inaction) and, further, demonstrates that the President paid attention to the findings of the United Nations Human Rights findings of Joseph Anayla— this is a good thing.
At LCE, we give the Presidential Order Two Thumbs Up.