Tribal leaders say efforts often hampered by bureaucracy

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman speaks to reporters outside the House of Awakened Culture in Suquamish. Also answering questions were Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Bremerton. - Melinda Weer / North Kitsap Herald
Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman speaks to reporters outside the House of Awakened Culture in Suquamish. Also answering questions were Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Bremerton.
— image credit: Melinda Weer / North Kitsap Herald

North Kitsap Herald correspondent

SUQUAMISH — Tribes are sovereign, or self-governing, nations. But federal and state bureaucracies often slow or inhibit their ability to respond to needs on their lands, Tribal leaders told federal officials at a Tribal Summit at the Suquamish Tribe’s House of Awakened Culture, April 24.

Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said the commission has not received a response from the White House three years after the commission presented a white paper offering solutions to salmon habitat degradation. And that’s putting treaty rights at risk (

“We ceded land to the U.S. under treaties. The U.S. needs to recognize those treaties,” he said. “Our people depend on the natural resources. We need to restore the habitat that has been destroyed. Don’t put us in these processes that take years and years. We can’t wait.”

He added, “Our hatcheries are under attack by lawsuits by NOAA [but] our hatcheries are there because the habitat is gone. Big business is saying it costs too much to have clean water. Our salmon, animals, eagles need clean water. We cannot allow that poison to take over our country.”

The summit was sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Bremerton. Summit participants included Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; Brian Cladoosby, Swinomish Tribe chairman and president of the National Congress of American Indians; and representatives of the Hoh Tribe, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Makah Nation, Quinault Nation, Quileute Tribe, Skokomish Tribe, and Suquamish Tribe.

Also participating: Larry Roberts, deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs; and Stanley Speaks, Northwest regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman took Jewell on a short walking tour, visiting fishermen on a Suquamish Seafood boat and paying respects at Chief Seattle’s grave.

Cladoosby started off the summit with a panel discussion on Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. “Tribes govern themselves and their [lands and people]. You don’t need to tell us what is good for us,” he told federal officials.

But sovereignty is not well-understood by many federal and state lawmakers. Jamestown S’Klallam Vice Chairwoman Liz Mueller said she spends a lot of time educating lawmakers on the subject — that Tribes have independent authority with the power to govern their lands and people, an authority they never relinquished when they signed treaties with the U.S. Indeed, their sovereignty empowered them to sign treaties with the U.S.

According to Skokomish Vice Chairman Joe Pavel, “We have a unique relationship with the United States. We would still be sovereign without that relationship. We are not artifacts. We are alive and we are still growing.”

Makah Chairman T.J. Greene said many Americans don’t understand the relationship between the U.S. and Tribes.

“When the Tribes ceded their land, the benefits that we now receive were paid for,” he said. “The land was ceded so the U.S. could have clear title in order to divide the country into states.” The U.S. government’s responsibility to honor its treaty obligations hasn’t changed, he said.

Tribal leaders said one of those obligations is funding.

“Tribes have been underfunded for generations,” said Frances Charles, chairwoman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. “We have limited resources to protect our elders, [and for] education, culture and resources. We know what the issues are; what we lack are the dollars.”

Pavel added, “Somebody else [outside the Tribe] has already decided what our priorities are and that’s where the money goes. One priority has been jails, but we need to get out ahead of that so our people don’t need those. Our priorities are our spiritual and cultural values, our physical and emotional health, our resources.”

Leaders also expressed concern about response to issues such as climate change; the Tribes at the summit are all coastal.

“Tribal communities are among the most vulnerable to climate change because of their place-based nature and connection to the environment,” Quinault natural resources adviser Gary Morishima said. “Tribes are in the best position to detect changes and determine in their own community how to remedy those changes.”

He added, “The major obstacle in climate change initiatives is fragmentation of responsibility in the government agencies. In order to maintain functional ecologic conditions across the landscape, someone needs to be in charge. Instead, we are tied to communications composed of tweets, bullets and teaspoons. Tribes need the ability to sort truth from fiction. The information needs to be relevant to decisions they are making. Tribes need to be involved in national and international policy decisions regarding climate change.”

The Tribes have a holistic view of environmental issues. “We are an oceangoing nation,” Greene said of the Makahs. “We are spiritually connected to the ocean. Seventy percent of our economy, our songs, dance and culture connects us.”

Another concern of Tribal leaders is the lack of reliable, high-speed Internet access. Much of Indian country is remote and broadband is not readily available. Not only does this affect Tribes’ ability to do business and get information, it also puts Native students at a disadvantage.

The Promoting Rural Broadband Act of 2014 (HR3916), sponsored by Kilmer, would direct the Federal Communications Commission to promote the expansion of broadband to unserved and underserved locations.

Jewell reassured Tribal leaders that she understands their concerns and supports them.

“The President and his Administration are firmly committed to our trust and treaty responsibilities and to upholding a strong government-to-government relationship with Tribal nations,” she said.

“As chair of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, what we heard today will help us in our comprehensive efforts to enable agencies across the federal family to work more collaboratively and productively with Tribal leaders to advance Tribal economic, social and environmental priorities.”

Jewell said she is encouraged that the federal fiscal year 2015 budget for Indian programs includes a 2.5 percent increase over FY 2014 enacted levels, and that funding recommendations involved consultation with the Tribes about their priorities.

Jewell is especially excited about President Obama’s commitment to restore Tribal homelands. More than 240,000 acres have been restored across the U.S. since 2009 through the fee-to-trust application process. When land is held in trust, the title is held by the U.S. government on behalf of the Tribal nation.

“My goal is to take 500,000 acres of fee lands [across the nation] into trust and I encourage the Tribes to continue to submit their applications and emphasize this administration's commitment to processing these applications,” Jewell said.

Earlier in the day, Cladoosby said trying to get land into trust is a lengthy process that needs to be simplified. Kilmer reported that Interior Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn issued a memorandum in November 2013 to put fee-to-trust applications of more than 200 acres on high priority — under his responsibility — in order to speed up the process.

The Port Madison Indian Reservation was expanded by 283 acres to include all of White Horse Golf Course in February. It’s the first expansion of the reservation since 1864 and is another step in the Suquamish Tribe’s efforts to reacquire land lost during the allotment era.

At the end of Jewell’s presentation, Greene and Charles invited her to visit their homelands. Jewell thanked them, but reminded them that she is just one person responding to 566 Tribal governments. She recently told Secretary of State John Kerry that his job is easy compared to hers; he must deal with only 196 nations.

Greene applauded Jewell’s visit to the Port Madison Reservation. “I’m excited that she’s willing to listen. I’m very optimistic that she is working on the issues important to us,” he said.


Photos, from top: Suquamish Chairman Leonard Forsman talks about Suquamish history with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the gravesite of Chief Seattle. Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Chairman Billy Frank Jr. advised federal officials, “Don’t put us in these processes that take years and years. We can’t wait.” Melinda Weer / North Kitsap Herald


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