President Biden on Tuesday signed a memo directing agencies to chart out how they plan to incorporate Native American needs into their decisionmaking, an early move to signal a sharp reversal from the Trump administration.
The order directs each government agency to turn over plans for how they can better consult with the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes.
“It is a priority of my administration to make respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance, commitment to fulfilling federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, and regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations cornerstones of Federal Indian policy,” Biden wrote in the memo.
“History demonstrates that we best serve Native American people when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities, and when federal officials speak with and listen to Tribal leaders in formulating federal policy that affects Tribal Nations,” he added.
The order isn’t a large departure from current federal policy requiring consultation with tribes, but tribal leaders have complained for decades that they’ve been sidelined or silenced by federal agencies.
Those complaints likewise surfaced during the Trump administration, with tribes levying charges that they were ignored in numerous public lands decisions as the agencies sought to reduce the scope of national monuments on lands considered sacred by tribes, including the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante monuments.
Tribes in Alaska and New Mexico also raised flags when the Department of the Interior staged virtual hearings with Native Americans at the height of the pandemic when weighing efforts to expand drilling. Though designed as a safety precaution, studies have found Native Americans living on reservations to be the least connected to high-speed internet.
“To do this one week in office really speaks to his commitment to Indian Country,” Nikki Pitre, executive director of the Center for Native American Youth and a member of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, told The Hill. “Indian Country really just wants to be engaged and be consulted and having the executive order means we have it in writing now.”
If confirmed, Biden’s nominee Rep. Deb HaalandDeb HaalandOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Internal watchdog to probe Trump officials who cast doubt on climate science | Kerry on climate talks: ‘I regret that my country has been absent’ | Biden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate Biden expands on Obama ethics pledge Biden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate MORE (D-N.M.), will be the first Native American Interior secretary and Cabinet official. The department oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies with responsibilities to tribes.
But Biden’s order will require consideration of tribal interests across all agencies, something Pitre hopes will help improve housing policy, education and more.
It could also help spur better health care planning, as some tribes have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus.