Tribal Leaders: Infrastructure Bill Should Include Indian Country Priorities

Native American leaders are once again pushing for a seat at the decision-making table, saying this week that tribal nations have been overlooked for "too often and too long."

Their latest concern comes with President Trump's proposed infrastructure plan. The president sent it to Congress on Monday, saying he aimed "to help build a better future for all Americans."

That same day, President Jefferson Keel of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) told the annual gathering of tribal leaders that, "in 2018, no infrastructure bill should pass unless it includes Indian Country's priorities."

Trump urged Congress to act quickly on an infrastructure bill that would stimulate the economy, shorten the process to approve building projects and address continuing infrastructure needs in rural areas. The proposed bill would also give more power to state and local authorities and provide training for the younger American workforce.

Trump's proposal reiterates points he outlined in the State of the Union last month, when he described America as "a nation of builders."

Keel used a similar phrase in his State of the Indian Nations address on Monday.

"Native peoples are also builders and managers of roads and bridges and other essential infrastructure," he said.

Keel said that a 2018 infrastructure bill should ensure that all communities — including native communities — have the framework needed to succeed. He emphasized that Congress should give tribes the same opportunities that state and local governments have to raise money, invest sufficient funding in basic building needs, remove barriers for tribes to make decisions and support tribal right to consent to developments that affect tribes and tribal lands.

"We just want to be included"

In terms of infrastructure, Trump's latest demands to Congress and Keel's priorities in Indian Country align. Both recognize the need for investing, empowering local authorities and addressing a flawed regulatory system that creates barriers for building. But Keel and others want to make sure that Indian Country is considered part of the bigger picture.

"If there is going to be any investment in infrastructure, I think we as a country should invest in the areas where it is most needed," Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, wrote in an email to NPR. "It shouldn't matter if the area is a rural Native American area or not."

Keel is on board with the president's proposal.

"It's not that we disagree with his priorities," Keel told NPR on Thursday. "We just want to be included in any of those plans for development of plans or policies that affect Indian Country in a way that we can not only protect our lands, but we can improve the relationship."

The Trump administration's plan would allocate $200 billion in federal money over 10 years, with additional contributions from states, localities and private investors that it claims would generate $1.5 trillion to fix and upgrade U.S. infrastructure, such as railroads, airports and highways. It would also shorten the project approval process down to two years or less, but Keel and other tribal leaders wonder whether Trump considered native lands when creating his new infrastructure proposal.

"To be honest, I don't know, but I hope — and Indian Country is hopeful — that we will be included in any of those plans or visions for fixing the infrastructure of this country," Keel said.

Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said that while Trump's plan is a start and the Navajo Nation supports the rural infrastructure program, "we need to beef it up and apply the funding where it is needed — and it's needed on tribal reservations like ours."

Hints to the Trump administration's funding priorities for tribes may be hidden in the 2019 budget released this week, which included significant cuts to federal programs that serve Indian Country. The proposed budget includes a 15 percent cut to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other major reductions that range from human services programs to law enforcement to education.

However, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke said Tuesday at NCAI's Executive Winter Council, that the president's infrastructure plan does include a complete reorganization of the bureaucratic processes and regulations, including those within native lands.

He also said he wants to make it easier to build a bridge — literally. Under the current process, it can take places up to 10 years to get permission to build a bridge, Zinke said. In Indian territory, increased regulations make the approval process take even longer.

Zinke, who helped create the new plan, admitted that the government has fallen short when it comes to serving the 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

"I want you to trust the government," he said. "But in many cases, that trust has been breached."

Speaking to the full ballroom of tribal leaders, Zinke called himself a "champion of all Indian Nations," though some of his decisions in his first year to slash the size of National Parks and approve controversial use of federal lands have made him another controversial figure in the Trump cabinet.

While Keel said he has great regard for Zinke, he's concerned that the secretary's talk of reorganization could affect relationships tribes have with state and local governments and other tribes, what it will cost, and the fact that there has been no consultation with tribal governments.

"It's typical in the sense of the federal government saying, 'here's the plan, this is what we're going to do, how do you like it?' And so that's not consultation. Consultation should occur before these plans are rolled out," Keel said Thursday. "By law, we have a right to sit and consult and talk about these things before any decision is made on any reorganization."

"Together," "We" and, "American"

This isn't a new issue. Indian nations have been pushing for improved acknowledgement of their sovereignty for decades, and Keel reiterated that again in his address on Tuesday.

Zinke supported Keel's push to allow tribes to make their own decisions about how their land is used, because "the view from the Potomac is so much different than the view from Yellowstone, or anywhere else."

And, from what Trump said in his State of the Union address, he seems to be on board with the entire country working together to improve the country's interior.

"Together, we can reclaim our building heritage," he said. "We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit."

But then, it may come down to semantics and how Trump defines "together," "we," and "American."

For Keel, the definition is clear: "Tribal infrastructure is American infrastructure."

Adrienne St. Clair is an intern on NPR's National Desk.

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