Indian Country After Trump

Book-ended by aggressive energy deals, his presidency is one of the most hostile to Native Americans in the past half-century

Jenni Monet
Jan 16 · 10 min read
President Trump at a Nov. 3, 2018 campaign rally at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana with Crow Nation tribal council members. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

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President Trump ended his administration the way he began it: by encroaching on Indigenous homelands, hungry for energy dominance.

On Friday, Jan. 15, less than a week left in the White House, Trump officials set in motion a copper mining deal in Arizona on a mountain range considered holy to the Apache. It mimicked the aggressive pace in which the president revamped the Dakota Access Pipeline in only his fourth day in office.

These are the bookends of Trump’s legacy in Indian Country — a mad rush to encroach upon some of its most mineral-rich lands protected by treaties or environmental guardrails, ultimately resulting in litigation, Indigenous activism, and often met with militarized police violence. It’s what will make his presidency a tenure marked as one of the most hostile in the past half-century to Native Americans.

Trump’s last day in office, should he go peacefully, is Wednesday, Jan. 20 when Joe Biden will be sworn in. Following the deadly raid on the U.S. Capitol and Trump’s second impeachment, the FBI has warned of possible armed protests in all 50 states ahead of Inauguration Day. Several governors have already activated their National Guard.

Indian Country is not immune to political polarization. At the start of the 117th Congress, three Native American representatives cast their votes to challenge Biden’s victory and to oppose impeaching Trump.

While Native American issues have never fallen neatly along partisan lines, there’s little room debating how Trump’s energy ambitions further encroached on Indigenous lands, destroyed sacred sites, and dangerously threatened tribal sovereignty. His prolonged slander centered around the famed Powhatan figure, “Pocahontas,” also has its place in a stream of steady social setbacks these past four years.

Indigenously has poured over dozens of instances and compiled them into eight categories to briefly show how Native nations were impacted under Trump.

From revamping the Dakota Access Pipeline during his first week in office to transferring Oak Flat, sacred Apache lands, to copper mining companies in his last week in office, Trump’s legacy in Indian Country is one book-ended by an energy agenda that disregarded treaty and environmental protections.

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, one agenda was clear: to roll-back Obama-era environmental regulations and aggressively extract natural resources from the land. “I am going to lift the restrictions on American energy, and allow this wealth to pour into our communities,” Trump said the day he announced his Energy Independence Policy from the White House. He had been in office barely two months.

Trump wasted little time advancing two pipeline projects vehemently opposed by Indigenous activists and their allies — the Dakota Access and Keystone XL — both supported by Trump’s televised signing of two executive memos within his first week in office. During his last week as president, his administration similarly targeted Oak Flat for copper mining, a 2,400-acreage swath of public land considered holy to the San Carlos Apache, but has now been transferred to Australian energy conglomerates.

Between these oil and mining deals were targeted extraction efforts on Chaco Canyon, Bear’s Ears, and the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Many of the final stages of these projects were forced through in the midst of a heart-wrenching pandemic.

To capstone Trump’s lewd legacy on the land, America’s exit from the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement became effective just one day after his Election Day defeat, a loss Trump has yet to truly accept.

Chairman Cedric Cromwell of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe addresses the #StandWithMashpee rally at the U.S. Capitol on November 14, 2018. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

One big way Indigenous affairs changed under President Trump: sovereignty. The most obvious was the absence of the annual White House Tribal Nation’s Conference, a gathering held for eight straight years under Obama in which Indigenous leaders from across Indian Country would meet with cabinet officials and even the president himself in formal-to-informal consultations about key tribal issues.

During Trump’s presidency, the summit went away as did the White House Council on Native American Affairs. With political representation diminished, the Trump administration made decisions on “race-based” views that undermined tribal sovereignty, including one of the president’s first signing statements in 2017 and a letter to Tribal leaders from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services in 2018.

The Trump administration also made it more difficult for Tribes to reclaim their homelands, and in one shocking case for the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, it threatened to take these trust lands away. Not since the presidencies of Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and even John F. Kennedy, had Indian Country been dealt such a debilitating blow to their autonomy— a dark chapter simply known as the “Termination Era” because the intended consequences for the federal government was the direct elimination of tribes.

Of all of these acts, there is room for some reversal, except for one; the most destructive. To make way for his overly politicized border wall, Trump ordered the clearing of Tohono O’odham sacred burial sites. The deliberate demolition seemed almost unbelievable — until it wasn’t.

The big health policy story for Indian Country under Trump was the same for the rest of Americans: the coronavirus. But the impact of the president’s failure to rise during the pandemic was perhaps felt more greatly for Indigenous Peoples, a demographic we now know as among the hardest hit by the deadly virus.

Trump’s rejection to promote mask-wearing, among the simplest and most effective way to curb the spread of the disease, emboldened his political base in conservative states and counties where many of the most vulnerable tribal communities are situated — Arizona and the Navajo Nation; the Dakotas and the vast Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, or seven bands of the Great Sioux Nation.

When tribes like the Cheyenne River Sioux exercised their sovereignty to conduct coronavirus safety checkpoints into and out of their reservation, they were challenged, first by the Bureau of Indian Affairs followed by South Dakota’s conservative governor, Kristi Noam. Today, the matter languishes, unnecessarily, in litigation.

More puzzling pushback surfaced when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turned down tribal epidemiologists’ requests for data that was otherwise made freely available to states.

In the end, Native nations weren’t even considered in the first round of coronavirus relief aid which required extra lobbying by Congressional representatives. But when the $8 billion CARES Act package did finally materialize for tribal governments, it was held up for months after for-profit Alaska Native Corporations attempted to claim a portion of it. The issue is now before the U.S. Supreme Court: are companies governments? And if so, what effect could that have on a tribe’s self-determination, or for that matter any government’s autonomy? They are issues raised that many across Indian Country wish didn’t have to be questioned.

Indian Country continues to report dismal statistics in education made worse by the pandemic. In August, when Trump encouraged schools to reopen in the midst of an unresolved pandemic, the Bureau of Indian Education ordered its 53 schools to prepare their classrooms for students, despite concerns from educators and parents.

On the Navajo Nation, which has the most BIE schools than any other tribe, and where several school employees died from Covid-19, President Jonathan Nez was frustrated by the Trump administration’s decision. “If BIE schools reopen as scheduled and there is a COVID-19 outbreak among students, teachers or staff, I will hold Assistant Secretary Sweeney and Mr. [Tony] Dearman responsible,” Nez said, referring to the BIA and BIE officials.

Before the pandemic, repeated attempts during Trump’s administration to enhance education budgets for Indian Country were largely unmet. The most glaring of these persistent problems: the Bureau of Indian Education remains the only education system in the country that hasn’t implemented a plan to hold schools accountable for student performance. Such maleducation has resulted in a web of obstacles, easy to correct, though neglected.

Over the course of Trump’s presidency, one basic trend was clear: energy dominance would fuel the nation’s economy, an outlook of which Indian Country was not overlooked. In 2019, the administration reported to Congress that an estimated $1.1 billion dollars in energy revenue had been received by tribal governments and individual Indian mineral owners.

After he took office, Trump stacked the Department of the Interior with energy-focused officials like Ryan Zinke and Iñupiat oil lobbyist, Tara Sweeney, to advance Trump’s energy agenda. Together, the pair tokenized coal-dependent tribes like the Crow Nation to help sell the idea for aggressive energy development on other tribal lands. For each of these appointed leaders, their tenures have been marked by ethics investigations; for Zinke, it forced his sudden resignation.

Over the course of four years, the Trump administration invested at least $2.3 million in energy grants; the most recent disbursement was doled out in December. The DOI also made it easier for tribes to manage their mineral leases without federal government oversight, which in turn made it easier for outside corporations to extract natural resources from these energy-rich lands.

Yet, even with energy revenues uplifting some tribal economies, the majority of tribal nations and their citizenry were still scarred by the 2019 government shutdown. Many carried this burden into a new financial crisis brought by the coronavirus. What the pandemic laid bare was merely a chronic inequality that has festered for centuries over prolonged neglect to correct broken treaties that continue to underfund healthcare, housing, and education programs promised to tribes.

Tribal leaders observe President Donald Trump sign an executive order to establish a task force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, Nov. 26, 2019. (Official White House Photo/Joyce N. Boghosian)

In response to a growing movement known as “Missing and Murdered” Trump called attention to the chronic rate of which Indigenous women, girls, and transgender individuals disappear or are found dead, and often with impunity, upon signing an executive order in 2019 — a task force — although to widespread criticism across Indian Country.

Grassroots organizers were quick to point out how the mission excluded them; how executive attention too narrowly focused on reservation-based crime as opposed to urban areas where the majority of Indigenous Peoples live. Meanwhile, lawmakers saw the Trump administration taking undue credit for what began as Senate-led action to address the nationwide issue in Washington.

“The DOJ’s plan reflects a lack of consultation and with Tribes, which is a pattern of this Administration on all Indian Country issues,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, the Laguna/Jemez Pueblo Congresswoman from New Mexico in response to the task force.

In October, Trump signed two laws aimed to enhance policing on tribal lands, Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisibile Act. Though, two days after their ratification, he goaded his supporters to “boo” Indigenous Peoples Day, seemingly canceling out whatever celebration Native gender rights advocates may have held for Trump’s anti-violence endorsements.

Trump’s race relations created some of his biggest headlines during his administration to which Indian Country was not immune. Relying on “Pocahontas” to jeer Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s controversial claims to Cherokee ancestry and his outward embrace of Andrew Jackson, AKA “Indian Killer,” made Trump appear insensitive to Indigenous Peoples. His support of MAGA hat-wearing Nick Sandmann, the Catholic Covington teenager who faced off with an Omaha elder activist in Washington, D.C., also widened the racial divide.

In addition, as he railed against replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, he vowed to his sea of his supporters that he would firmly stand against it. “Not as long as I’m president,” he said. On the actual holiday, Oct. 12, Indigenous activists and their allies were met with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets as they protested Trump’s border wall behind the destruction of sacred sites.

In his last week in office, the Trump administration issued its ‘1776 Report’, an attempt to make the case for “patriotic education” in defense of America’s “founding.” The report, fixated on slavery and challenging leftist ideals, omitted Indigenous Peoples entirely.

It wasn’t all bad. For Pueblo culture bearers, they led the way to have ceremonial objects and the ancestral remains repatriated to them under Trump. The Hopi were funded $5 million to update their arcane water system across its three mesas, and $3 million went towards the preservation of Native languages.

Still, these acts were not enough. Fewer Indigenous-related bills on average were enacted under Trump, and the time it will take to undo many of his decisions to restore protections of sacred sites and public lands will take away from advancing other Indigenous affairs under a Biden administration.

There are also decisions Trump made that may possibly never be undone, including the conservative judicial appointments of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court — both of whom hold thin and biased records on federal Indian law and could decide outcomes that may be damaging for the future of tribes.

Despite Trump’s legacy, there is an optimism among Indigenous Peoples who turned out in record numbers to vote in favor of Biden, who has since nominated Rep. Deb Haaland to become the first Native American cabinet secretary, if confirmed. Most symbolic is Biden’s inauguration eve promise to kill the Keystone XL Pipeline on his first day as president, a mirror opposite move from Trump.

This article was updated from its original published date, Jan. 15, 2021.


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