Funding issues voiced in tribal listening session

Voices column on the Quiet Crises listening session regarding the needs of Northwest Indian tribes.

TAHOLAH — A special “listening session” took place last Friday in this oceanside village, home of 1,500 members of the Quinault Indian Nation. It’s a far stretch from here to Congress and there are hundreds of tribes in between. The listening session could potentially impact every one of them.

The listeners were Martin Castro, Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Karen Narasaki, Civil Rights Commissioner, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA). The speakers included Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Nation and of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians as well as Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, and W. Ron Allen, Chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and former NCAI President, current Treasurer of NCAI and several other tribal leaders.

The subject was funding.

More specifically, it was funding disparities, and that’s where civil rights enter the picture. The USCCR is in the process of updating a 2003 report called Quiet Crisis that found federal investments too often failed to provide adequate health care, education, natural resource protection and housing support, among other basic needs. Costs go up due to inflation and other impacts, but tribal funding has not kept pace — not in health care, education, natural resource management, housing or other areas.

“People need to remember that settlement of the United States was made possible through treaties and commitments with Indian Nations. In exchange for ceding claims to millions of acres, tribes received promises of peace, reservation homelands, and commitments to provide for the needs of their communities and to protect our ability to maintain our ways of life. Many of the promises made to tribes have never been fulfilled,” Sharp said.

“Quinault Nation, and tribes throughout this country are not facing a quiet crisis of unmet funding needs, but a humanitarian crisis. We haven’t been quiet about it; we’ve been ignored. We thank Congressman Kilmer and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for listening to us about the profound impacts inadequate funding have on our tribal communities. Too many of our people suffer from shocking levels of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, violence and deteriorating health,” Sharp said.

“And now we are facing the impacts of climate change. Right here in our village of Taholah, we are facing very real dangers from sea level rise, intensified storms, floods, warming oceans, acidified waters and the very real danger of tsunami. This entire village has to relocate. Our people didn’t cause any of these problems, but they’re the first ones to be impacted by them. These things all cost big-time and they’re things that simply can’t be ignored.”

Kilmer said too many tribes across the nation aren’t getting the investments they need to thrive: “That’s why I’m glad the Commission is moving forward on a report that will make crystal clear the work we need to do. Sessions like today will make sure the report incorporates the voices of the folks who are directly impacted. I was proud to join with local leaders to put this summit on and push a new review forward.”

In 2015, Kilmer led a bipartisan group urging the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to update the 2003 report. The members noted that since the original report was published, the needs of Native American communities have continued to grow, while investments have not kept pace. Most have fallen behind.

Chairman Allen stated a few examples. “Tribal leaders have repeatedly called for more funding for tribal public safety and justice programs, specifically law enforcement officers, tribal courts, detention facilities, and corrections staffing. The provision of law enforcement is a core function of any government and critical to a well-functioning market economy. The last gap analysis report of BIA law enforcement showed we were funded at about 60 percent of need,” he said.

“Tribes cannot afford to subsidize the federal government for law enforcement and other public services, which should be funded federally and delivered at the tribal level, either directly or through self-determination contracts, based on treaty agreements and the trust responsibility,” said Allen.

Allen also spoke of needs in education. “About 50,000 Indian students attend Bureau of Indian Education schools, but only about half of BIE high school students eventually graduate, compared to two-thirds of American Indian and Alaska Native students who attend public schools. A recent GAO report found that more than one-third of all 180 schools have not had health and safety inspections in the last year. Of those, 54 haven’t been inspected in at least four years. Even when inspectors identified problems, repairs may not happen for months or years — far longer than the required two-week response time.”

Congress has unequivocally recognized that there is nothing “more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children,” according to an August 2016 report by the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

“We can’t wait forever for the U.S. to fulfill its promises to Indian Country. It’s time to try a different path, to support the ability of tribes to assert their governmental authorities to be a part of the solution to a problem that has long stained this country’s honor,” said Allen.

The Civil Rights Commission has issued statements that tribes are deeply concerned about the failure of federal agencies to prioritize protection of tribal forests – at both policy and funding levels. When there are fires on reservations, help from federal agencies has been de-prioritized, as is funding support.

“Tribal forestry operations are severely underfunded and understaffed, which affects the health and productivity of our forests,” said Sharp. “That has major impacts on timber management, jobs and our economy. It has major impacts on road maintenance, enforcement and protection of our cultural resources. Lack of funding for fisheries management hinders our efforts to restore our salmon runs, too,” she said. “We work hard to restore habitat we didn’t damage, and manage several rivers, Lake Quinault and the ocean.”

Elena Bassett of the Yakama Nation, Housing Co-chair for the ATNI, described several situations in which tribal members have no electricity, toilets or running water. She said, ”Our First Americans face some of the worst housing and living conditions in the country and the availability of affordable, adequate, safe housing in Indian Country falls far below that of the general U.S. population.”

Since 1998, the first year of implementation of the Indian Housing Block Grant, Congress has provided consistent funding annually in nominal terms, averaging approximately $638 million per year from 1998 through 2014. Over those years however, inflation and rising costs to build have seriously eroded what could have been built to meet the housing needs of Native Americans. When including adjustments according to consumer price index, today’s funding should be adding another $440 million annually, when equated to 1998 dollars.

“Through the years tribes in this country have endeavored to achieve self-determination and effective government-to-government relations with the United States, but we have lacked the funds to fully succeed. In the years to come we have to make a concerted effort to find a more hopeful future for Indian Country. It will mean more adequate funding, and more adequate compliance with the terms of the treaties. They are the law of the land. But it will also mean better government-to-government relations, more focus on environmental stewardship and more support for tribal sovereignty,” said Sharp.

“Listening sessions like this will help, but it is action that truly counts,” she said.

Chairman Allen pointed out that the most important message of the day was how to fulfill the needs. “Tribes are sovereign nations,” he said. “It would be highly beneficial for Congress to uphold and enforce our authority to levy taxes on our reservations—to truly advance our self- determination.”

“This is not just about policy,” said Chairman Castro at the end of the meeting. “This is not just about a report. This is about a fundamental change between our nation and our First Nations so we can all meet our objectives of the Seven Generations to come.”