Sen. Elizabeth Warren has a policy plan for American Indians. The 19-page plan introduced Friday at Medium isn’t the first such proposal from a presidential candidate this election season, but it is by far the most comprehensive. Titled “A Legislative Proposal Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act,” the plan was developed together with Democratic Rep. Debra Haaland, the Laguna Pueblo citizen who in January became one of the first two Native women ever to serve in Congress. Several of more than a score of the plan’s proposals were developed with an eye on the findings last year of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans. That report was a review of a 2003 study.
Throughout U.S. history and in America for decades before it even was the United States, when it comes to indigenous peoples, “promises” and “broken” have been inextricably linked. Moreover, government plans that were supposed to improve Indian life have often had the opposite effect and not infrequently included the transfer of what had been Native lands into non-Native hands, the destruction of tribal identity, culture, religion, language, and economic base. A longstanding effort since the slaughter was ended more than a century ago has been to make modern Indians invisible, only appearing as relics, monolithic stereotypes, and societal misfits. Many Americans view Native problems as our own damn fault even as they condescend to pity us.
This plan, which you can read at the end of this story, challenges that perception and puts it into the proper light. Warren writes:
“This legislation will not address every major policy issue of concern to tribal nations and Indigenous communities. But it will represent an urgently needed and long-overdue step toward ensuring that the United States finally, and for the first time, fully meets its resource obligations to Indian Country.”
In an analysis at Indian Country Today, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye writes:
Within each policy area Warren reinforces the nation-to-nation relationship, tribal sovereignty and self-determination. Keeping that in mind, she wants to receive input from tribal citizens, tribal leaders, stakeholders, the public, and experts before Congress looks at the final product. [...]
While Warren, like others who have rolled out plans, hers stands out in several ways: length, a change in funding stream, proposal of cabinet-level position, a policy for suicide, address land loss via allotment, tackling child abuse, addressing mental health, a proposal for how to fund law enforcement programs and give more tribal courts jurisdiction, the inclusion of Native youth, establishing an alert program for missing Indigenous women, making sure Native veterans receive services, and fighting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that counters the American Indian Religous Freedom Act from 1978.
Not even the best plan can provide an antidote to all the obstacles to change for the indigenous population. And as lengthy as the Warren-Haaland plan is, it won’t be hard to find critics of this or that particular item. Indeed, some elements of the plan will undoubtedly be ferociously challenged in a nation where numerous angry objections were raised and hate mail sent over the simple matter of changing the name of the Custer Battlefield National Monument to the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument three decades ago. That being said, this is the best official plan that’s been proposed to address the needs of Indian Country since … well, forever. And one of the key reasons for that is, unlike so many other plans, indigenous voices have been listened to and indigenous ideas adopted in its development. And the idea is to keep listening.
In an Op-Ed at Indian Country today Friday, Haaland writes:
Our legislative proposal uses Broken Promises as a road map. It focuses on federal funding for the five areas covered by the report and proposes possible tools for ensuring that funding actually reaches Native nations and individuals in those communities.
Advocates like United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, National Indian Education Association, National Indian Health Board, and the National Council of Urban Indian Health have repeatedly urged Congress to fully fund Indian agencies and programs. Organizations like the National American Indian Housing Council have made clear that only substantial investments can address significant housing needs in Indian Country. Elected leaders like Chairperson Aaron Payment of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have described how Congressional dysfunction takes a heavy toll on tribal governments—and constitutes a federal failure to fulfill the Trust Responsibility. We have both witnessed firsthand the inadequacies in these processes as we have worked to secure greater investments in Indian Country.
Our legislation will address budgetary uncertainty for programs affecting tribal governments, so that sequestration, government shutdowns, and the whims of a divided Congress never imperil the fulfillment of the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities again. Our legislation will also ensure that Native American communities have a permanent voice at the highest levels of government. And it will make meaningful and timely tribal consultation the norm.
What Warren writes in three introductory paragraphs to the plan is crucial:
The story of America’s mistreatment of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians is a long and painful one, rooted in centuries of discrimination, neglect, greed, and violence. Tribal Nations robbed of more than a billion acres of land. Resources seized and sacred sites desecrated. Native languages and religions suppressed. Children literally stolen from communities in an effort to eradicate entire cultures. Native history is American history — and we must be honest about our government’s responsibility in perpetuating these injustices for centuries.
And yet, despite this history, Tribal Nations and indigenous peoples have proven resilient and continue to contribute to a country that took so much and keeps asking for more. They serve in the United States military at higher rates than any other group in America. Each year, more and more Native people go to college and graduate school, and start businesses. Efforts to preserve Native cultures and languages are more prevalent and successful now then at any time in our nation’s history.
Stories of hope and optimism can be found throughout Indian Country. But as a nation, we are failing in our legal, political, and moral obligations toward tribal governments and indigenous peoples. That this failure is simply the latest chapter in generations of prior failures is no excuse. As I said when I spoke to the National Congress of American Indians in 2018, Washington owes Native communities respect — and much more. Washington owes Native communities a fighting chance to build stronger communities and a brighter future.
Forty-seven years ago, I was among the hundreds of Indians who joined the nationwide American Indian Movement-led caravan to Washington, D.C., called the Trail of Broken Treaties. Most of the issues we raised then are still the issues of today. Reinforcing the government-to-government nature of the U.S. relationship with the tribes, and taking seriously what is being said by Indian voices, in all our diversity, are fundamental elements of the Warren-Haaland plan. As it gets debated in the halls of Congress and the media, it would behoove everyone to remember how crucial, but how often absent, those elements are.