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Op-Ed

Trump is breaking the federal government's promises to Native Americans

When Republicans made yet another unsuccessful attempt to take away healthcare from millions of Americans last month, Native Americans, specifically Alaska Natives, worked to ensure that Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted against the plan, sealing its defeat.

They fought against the “skinny repeal” because they understood that it would harm them. The United States has long guaranteed Native Americans access to healthcare, mostly through commitments the federal government made to Indian tribes in exchange for land. Repeal of Obamacare would put much of this tribal healthcare at risk, including the care received by more than 290,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives through the Medicaid expansion.

But healthcare is just one of many areas where the Trump administration wants to break our government’s promises to Indian Country.

President Trump’s proposed 2,200-mile border wall, for instance, is not merely ludicrous immigration policy and a massive waste of taxpayer money, it also shows profound disregard for the sovereign rights of Native Americans.

The Tohono O’odham Nation, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, straddles 62 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. Trump’s wall would cut right through the reservation, including land that is sacred burial ground. Until now, the tribe has accommodated U.S. Customs and Border Protection, allowing a fence to be built and border patrol agents to guard it, but it adamantly opposes Trump’s barricade. Nevertheless, last month, House Republicans approved $1.6 billion to construct part of the wall.

Trump’s advisors have repeatedly pushed for the privatization of Indian lands and resources. Before Trump even took office, the chair of his Native American Coalition, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), proposed that tribal land be put into private ownership and claimed the idea would receive widespread support from Indian tribes. Instead, the idea was widely condemned.

In May, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke raised eyebrows at the National Tribal Energy Summit when he called for an “off-ramp” for taking native lands out of trust. “If tribes would have a choice of leaving Indian trust lands and becoming a corporation, tribes would take it,” he said.

Zinke’s comments bore a striking resemblance to the rationale used to justify Termination, an Eisenhower-era policy in which Indians were paid to dismantle their sovereign governments and relinquish their lands. Proponents of the policy argued that if Native Americans adopted the habits of “civilized life,” they would need less land, which, conveniently, also would mean the expansion of the United States. Congress imposed the policy, House Concurrent Resolution 108, without consulting Indian Country.

The policy proved so catastrophic that President Nixon ended it in 1970 with a strong repudiation, telling Congress, “Forced termination is wrong.” He went on to sign scores of legislative measures that restored the sovereignty of tribal nations. Every president since Nixon has embraced a policy of “self-determination without termination” — the idea that Native Americans are best equipped to govern themselves.

Trump is breaking with this position. He has even gone so far as to question the constitutionality of programs designed to assist tribes. In a signing statement that accompanied an appropriations bill he approved in May, Trump suggested that Native American housing block grants represent an unconstitutional privilege. This perverse reading of the relationship between the U.S. government and Indian Country flies in the face of the Constitution, including its Indian Commerce Clause, and two centuries of court rulings.

Trump’s budget also betrays his contempt for Indian Country. If budgets are moral documents, his is morally bankrupt: It calls for more than $300 million in cuts to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs budget. Trump wants to cut $64 million from education, $21 million from law enforcement and public safety, $23 million from human services and $50 million from housing programs. These programs represent more than money; they’re investments with which the federal government honors its treaties with tribal nations.

Tribal communities have grown stronger over the last eight years because of President Obama’s deep commitment to nation-to-nation relationships, built on respect for the sovereignty of tribal governments. He worked to restore over half a million acres of tribal trust lands, established an annual White House Tribal Nations Conference and added a provision to the Violence Against Women Act that gives tribal courts the jurisdiction to try non-Indians for domestic abuse.

By steering the government toward Termination-era policies, Trump threatens the health and prosperity of Native Americans and drags us all backward. This approach has devastated Indian Country before. We cannot allow it to happen again.

The Democratic Party has learned from the terrible mistakes of the past. Our platform requires that we honor, fulfill and strengthen the federal government’s trust responsibility to American Indians. We take this responsibility seriously. That means we will stand with Indian Country and resist Trump’s disastrous policies.

Tom Perez is chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

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