Today, U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) encouraged new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to honor the mature government-to-government relationship that exists between the United States and American Indian Tribes. The trust relationship is grounded in the United States Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and Supreme Court decisions.
Cantwell's remarks occurred today during an Indian Affairs Committee hearing on the views and priorities of Secretary Jewell, who was sworn in on April 12, 2013. As Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Jewell heads the principal agency charged with carrying out the federal government's trust responsibility to American Indian Tribes. Today's hearing marked the Secretary's first appearance in front of the Committee.
"It is important to hear from Secretary Jewell in her early tenure as Secretary of the Interior because the relationship between Tribal governments and the federal government is a unique one," said Cantwell at today's hearing. "This relationship is a mature relationship, expressed in terms of legal duties, moral obligations, and expectancies that have arisen based on the continuous history of Tribal interactions with the federal government since the formation of the United States."
The Committee heard testimony from Secretary Jewell, who affirmed her commitment to carrying out the trust responsibility at all of the Department of the Interior's Bureaus and Offices: "I am committed to upholding the federal government's obligations to Native Americans and to strengthening the United States' government-to-government relationship with Indian Tribes and Alaska Natives," Jewell said. "The cornerstone of my policy as Secretary of the Interior will be centered on promoting self-governance and self-determination, and the inherent right of Tribal governments to make their own decisions to strengthen their communities."
Jewell pledged to work with Congress to carry out the trust responsibility: "The Administration intends to consult with Tribes and work with Congress on a long term solution that will further promote the shared goal of Tribal self-determination and self-governance."
Wednesday's hearing also examined the consequences to Tribal sovereignty of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on the Carcieri case in 2009. The ruling overturned the long-standing interpretation of the Indian Reorganization Act to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to place lands into trust for all federally recognized Tribes. Since 1934, restoring Tribal homelands has been a critical component to fulfilling the policy of self-determination.
Jewell expressed her support for a legislative fix to the U.S. Supreme Court's Carcieri decision:
"Tribes use lands acquired in trust for housing, schools, hospitals, Tribal government administrative offices and economic development projects," Jewell said. "The Carcieri decision represents a step back toward misguided policies of a century ago and is wholly inconsistent with the United States long-standing policy of self-governance and self-determination." Jewell continued: "The Administration continues to support a legislative solution to address the negative impacts and increased burdens on the Department and on Indian Country resulting from this decision."
The hearing also examined Jewell's priorities for Department-operated schools for American Indian students. The Department operates 183 schools and dormitories located on 64 reservations in 23 states. Poor student outcomes and outdated school facilities have raised questions about whether the Department is fulfilling its obligations to Tribal communities. In response to questions from Committee members, Jewell explained her understanding of the issue, and acknowledged her responsibility, as Secretary, to carry out the Department's mission to provide quality education to American Indian students.
"[American Indian] children experience some of the highest levels of poverty in the United States, which not only affects the possibilities for their academic success but may also limit other possibilities for success later in life," said Jewell. "The Administration is committed to ensuring Native American students receive an academically rigorous, culturally appropriate education that will prepare them to be productive citizens and leaders in their communities and help build safer, stronger, healthier, and more prosperous Indian communities."
The Committee also explored Jewell's views on the Department's efforts to improve energy and economic development on Tribal lands. Current barriers for Indian communities include a lack of access to capital, regulatory barriers, and many Tribes' rural locations. Jewell stated her commitment to working with Tribes on those efforts.
"The Department is committed to assisting Tribes in expanding on Indian lands renewable, low cost, reliable, and secure energy supplies as well as and safe and responsible oil and gas development in accordance with Tribal objectives," said Jewell. "Implementing the President's all-of-the-above energy strategy in Indian Country will contribute to the goals of increasing our nation's domestic energy supplies and of improving the economies of many Indian Tribes and Alaska Native villages."
Jewell also highlighted the unique challenges posed by climate change to Tribal communities, whose local economies and cultural identities often depend on natural resources: "The Department has a special role to play in working with Indian Tribes to safeguard resources and to maintain fish and wildlife needed for subsistence harvests."