COMMENTARY: Donald Trump can make a difference in Indian Country
Published: March 4th, 2017
OKLAHOMA CITY – Barack Obama devoted some time and energy, but not enough, to the issues and concerns of Native American tribes and peoples.
Unfortunately, much but not all of his time spent on Indian issues went into appealing-to-the-Left policies that will have little lasting value in improving lives of people who actually live in and around Native lands.
Obama frequently sent signals of his sympathy for smaller tribes, those who have never had the political, monetary and institutional advantages granted to the larger tribes (including here in Oklahoma) by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the powerful and often dysfunctional arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
However, Obama’s sympathy rarely went beyond symbolism.
A case in point was his treatment the historic aspirations of the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma (C&As). To close observers, it seemed clear he would do what could and should have been done decades ago – fulfilling promises made by presidential predecessors to return land immediately adjacent to historic Fort Reno to the C&As (http://www.www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/as-president-obama-visits-oklahoma-indian-country-its-never-too-late-for-justice). That never happened, and it will remain among President Obama’s greatest missed opportunities.
In the real world of Washington, D.C., as Ronald Reagan used to say, Personnel is Policy.
There is little doubt how and why Obama fell short in his own ambitions for Native America. He brought into the Interior Department and the BIA individuals who differed little if at all from generations of bureaucratic predecessors from both political parties.
I am not quite alone in reaching – in my case, after decades of reading, writing and thinking about Indian Country policy as it impacts the smaller tribes – such conclusions about biases that operate within the bowels of the Interior Department and the BIA.
In a notable news report for Politico.com (October 2015), journalist David Rogers wrote, “From Oklahoma to California, rich tribes play the political system to protect their share of the gaming markets. Lost is any perspective on the hundreds of poorer tribes just trying to establish some economic foothold and homeland for themselves.” (http://www.politico.com/story/2015/10/new-indian-wars-washington-215208)
That was then. This is now. I pray that “now” can forever nudge “then” into the past tense.
The big tribes can take care of themselves, at least hereabouts.
Trump should advance the interests of the smaller Native American tribes marginalized by the power and economic clout of the big guys, advantages exacerbated over generations through bad bureaucratic decisions about the location of trust lands, use of those lands and related decisions.
In the end, Obama stuck with historic injustices that allowed large tribal interests to utilize areas that should have come to rest in the control of the smaller tribes like the C&As, the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Apache and others. Trump can change that.
Ryan Zinke, new U.S. Secretary of the Interior, knows reform is needed, and promised departmental reorganization (the first in a century) in his opening comments to agency staff this week. (https://www.indianz.com/News/2017/03/03/new-interior-secretary-zinke-confirms-ru.asp)
Lest there be any confusion: Trump needs new personnel with bravery and coherence to run the BIA and the Department of Interior.
No old guard holdovers or retreads. New blood. Now.
NOTE: A member of the National Press Club and the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, McGuigan has garnered frequent awards for his work, including recognition in the “diversity news” category from the Society of Professional Journalists, Oklahoma chapter. He was presented a first-place designation in 2012 for stories on tribal issues in western Oklahoma.