Kamala’s Plan To Honor Tribal Sovereignty And Lift Up Native American Communities

The First Peoples of this country were Native Americans. Long before European explorers arrived in North America, American Indian tribes inhabited this land and governed their societies.  

Our Founders recognized the sovereignty of tribal governments in the U.S. Constitution. When the United States signed treaties with Tribal Nations for the exchange of land, we agreed to take on a trust responsibility to preserve the right of Indian tribes to govern themselves and provide sufficient resources so tribes can deliver essential services to their citizens.

But we must speak truth: we have failed our obligations to Tribal Nations. 

The United States has signed over 500 treaties with Tribal Nations—and we have broken every single one of them. We have a brutal history of taking millions of acres of land and decimating Native American communities. Today, as a result, Native American communities lag behind others in terms of health care, education, and economic development.

Nonetheless, Native American communities remain resilient and vibrant. And we have an opportunity to chart a new course of fully empowering Native American communities and supporting their governments’ right to self-determination and self-governance. 

As president, Kamala will honor the United States’ historic government-to-government relationship with Tribal Nations and invest in Native American communities to secure lasting prosperity.  


HOW SHE’LL DO IT:

Honor tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship.

  • Kamala will reaffirm the government-to-government relationship through an executive order. Building on Executive Order 13175 and the work of the Clinton and Obama administrations, the order will direct all Cabinet Secretaries, in consultation with tribal governments and any existing advisory committees, to expeditiously review current tribal consultation policies and standardize executive departments’ procedures for consulting and collaborating with tribes. 
  • Kamala will give tribal leaders the respect they deserve. That means that tribal consultation will occur often, and it will be meaningful. She will hold an annual Tribal Nations Conference at the White House to collaborate on ways to improve Native Americans’ quality of life and access to justice—a practice the Obama administration started and President Trump discarded. Kamala will invite tribal leaders and youth leaders from around the nation to learn from them and hear about the issues their tribes and communities face.
  • Kamala values diversity, and the Harris administration will seek to appoint or hire Native Americans in all departments and agencies and at all levels of seniority, including across the Executive Branch. Of course, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service will be led by strong Native leaders.
  • Federal courts make important decisions that define the contours of our nation-to-nation relationships and impact the lives of people in Indian Country. Yet out of over 850 federal judges, only one American Indian and one Native Hawaiian currently serve as federal judges. More Native Americans need to be nominated to the federal judiciary, and Kamala commits to making sure Native Americans are represented in the federal judiciary.

Restore tribal lands.

Tribal lands are essential to tribal sovereignty. Tribal governments must have an adequate land base to support their citizens and culture. For example, trust lands allow tribes to provide housing for their citizens and decide how best to use their natural resources. Between 1887 and 1934, the federal government took and sold more than 90 million acres—nearly two-thirds of all reservation lands—from the tribes without compensation. Since Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, however, tribes have reacquired only about eight percent of the 90 million acres into trust. We need to do more.

  • Kamala will set a goal to take 500,000 more acres of land into trust for federally recognized Indian tribes. She’ll work to make this process simpler, faster, and less costly for lands within or contiguous to existing reservations. 
  • Kamala will also push Congress to amend the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) to clarify that tribes federally recognized after 1934 can receive land into trust. U.S. policy should not create two classes of tribes—one that can have land taken into trust and one that cannot. She’ll propose the amendment in her annual budget request until Congress enacts the policy. And in the meantime, she’ll ensure that the Department of the Interior interprets the IRA as broadly as possible so all tribes can acquire trust lands. 
  • Even where Tribal Nations have been able to establish and protect their homelands, it is often difficult for them to control how they’re used and developed. Kamala will work with tribes and Congress to build upon laws like the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Home Ownership (HEARTH) Act to restore tribal control and jurisdiction over tribal lands.
  • Kamala also understands that Tribal Nations and their citizens have important treaty and religious rights to lands outside of their reservations and trust lands.  She will direct federal land agencies to work with tribes to secure their ability to exercise reserved treaty rights and protect places that are important to the spiritual practices and cultural fabric of Tribal Nations.
  • Rectify environmental injustices. Kamala will ensure that Native Americans have a voice in the fight to rectify systemic environmental injustices forced upon their communities. Kamala’s Climate Equity Act ensures that Indigenous people are given a seat at the table, and that Indigenous communities give free, prior, and informed consent before projects that may affect them or their territory go forward. 
    • The recent report on climate change and land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change repeatedly addresses the need to bring Indigenous peoples into decision-making processes and to utilize indigenous and local knowledge to our collective benefit. Kamala will work with Indigenous communities to fight the climate crisis, learning from their traditional ecological knowledge, history, and experiences. 

Secure quality health care and health equity for Native Americans.

Kamala believes the federal government must do more to fulfill its trust and treaty responsibilities to Indian tribes when it comes to healthcare. Severe underfunding means it’s no surprise that American Indian and Alaska Native people experience lower life expectancy and disproportionate disease rates compared with other Americans: in 2018, the Government Accountability Office found that the Indian Health Service (IHS) health care expenditures per person were only $4,078, compared to $13,185 per person for Medicare recipients. We’ve got to fix that. Kamala’s plan will:

  • Exempt IHS from federal budget sequestrations. IHS provides medical care to 2.2 million Native Americans. But in fiscal year 2013, automatic, across-the-board cuts slashed $220 million out of Indian health programs. The cuts forced tribes and federally run IHS direct service programs to close their doors or deliver only specialized care for “life or limb.” And out of the four federally funded services that provide direct patient care, only the IHS was not exempt from sequestration. As president, Kamala will work with Congress to correct this imbalance and exempt IHS from further budget sequestrations.
  • Stabilize funding for IHS. Kamala will formally ask Congress to provide advanced appropriations for IHS to ensure that IHS can provide critical medical care even if the government shuts down and annual appropriations expires.
  • Promote tribally driven, culturally competent, and holistic health care approaches to improving health outcomes in Indian Country. Traditional Native American healing is holistic and focuses on the person and their environment, not only the illness. Kamala recognizes that tribal members are best served by tribal governments with the autonomy to provide culturally competent care. That’s why she’ll prioritize investments in tribal community integration and maximize flexibility for tribes engaging in self-governance for their IHS programs. 
  • Invest in telehealth and technology to advance physical and mental health treatment. Kamala will significantly expand telehealth, which allows doctors to treat patients through videoconference. Because the lack of rural broadband impedes this practice, Kamala will invest $80 billion in a new “Broadband for the People” program that will ensure 100 percent of households in America have access to affordable broadband by the end of her first term. This includes making sure that we expand broadband to Indian Country.
  • Invest in mental health and substance abuse treatment. The substance abuse and mental health crisis has hit Native American communities hard. Nationwide, Native Americans are at least twice as likely as the general population to become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and three times as likely to die of a drug overdose. And Native American young adults between 18 and 24 years old commit suicide at higher rates than any other ethnic or racial group
    • That’s why Kamala will dedicate $100 million to create a new Tribal Emergency Fund for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to administer so tribal communities can address these public health crises in culturally competent ways.
       
    • She’ll also authorize a new educational loan forgiveness program for mental health professionals that agree to practice in underserved areas (Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act). 

 

Protect Native women and children.

The epidemic of violence against Native women and children is staggering. More than 80% of Native women will experience physical, sexual, or psychological violence in their lifetimes, often in the form of domestic or intimate-partner violence. One in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. And murder is the third leading cause of death for Native women and girls. In 1978, a U.S. Supreme Court decision stripped tribal nations of all jurisdiction over non-Indians who commit crimes on tribal lands. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, non-Indians commit 88 percent of violent crimes against Native women, but because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant, tribal nations can no longer protect their women living on their own lands.

Lack of coordination with federal agencies, sparse resources, and limited jurisdiction to prosecute crimes mean that while women across Indian Country are dying and disappearing, far too many of their cases go unreported, unsolved, or untouched by law enforcement.

No more. Here’s how Kamala will stand up for the human rights of Native women and children:

  • Ensure up-to-date crime databases and coordinate law enforcement agencies to prosecute crimes. We have to get to the bottom of the staggering number of missing, murdered, and trafficked Indigenous women. But we must first understand the full scope of the problem and give our law enforcement and communities the support they need. Kamala was the first attorney general to provide a tribal police department full access to a state-run criminal history database. As president, Kamala will fight to open federal databases to Indian Country by passing Savanna’s Act, which she co-sponsors as a Senator, as well as using her executive authority to ensure that tribal governments have access to this critical, lifesaving information. She’ll also fight to pass the Not Invisible Act, which will ensure that the federal government coordinates across agencies to best use its resources to fight violence against Native women.
  • Take on the epidemic levels of domestic violence, poverty, and poor health and educational outcomes for the most vulnerable in Indian Country. Kamala will continue to fight to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which includes unique protections for sovereign Tribal Nations and partially restores tribal jurisdiction so tribal governments can prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence on tribal lands. 
  • Restore tribal jurisdiction. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution prevents Tribal Nations from protecting their women and children, and as president, Kamala will work with Congress to ensure the federal government restores the jurisdiction that the Supreme Court in Oliphant wrongfully—and unconstitutionally—removed.  This legislation would validate tribal governments’ inherent power to exercise jurisdiction while ensuring that non-Indian defendants retain their full due process rights.
  • Safeguard children’s welfare. It’s always been one of Kamala’s highest priorities to fight for children. That’s why she’ll keep children at the center of her decision-making. As Attorney General, Kamala established the Bureau of Children’s Justice, launched an investigation into a local government for violating Native children’s rights by failing to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), and created the first ICWA Compliance Task Force. Kamala knows that enforcing ICWA is a matter of human rights, not just of compliance, and she’ll fight to keep it on the books. Kamala also recognizes the unique needs and challenges that Native American children face and the federal government’s role in creating those challenges. As president, she’ll also make it a priority to fully implement the recommendations of the Report of the Attorney General’s Task Force on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence.

 

Create educational opportunities for Native American students.

Our nation’s education system is supposed to be an engine of opportunity, but aging infrastructure, lack of funding, and remote locations don’t give Native American students a fair shot. There are approximately 644,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in the K-12 system. We need to focus on reaching all Native students by partnering with tribally run schools, the Bureau of Indian Education, and public schools to ensure a bright future for all children.

Accelerate economic development on tribal lands.

  • Expand support for Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). CDFIs help fill the gaps in access to capital in Indian Country through loans, investments, technical assistance, and other services. Kamala will continue to invest in Native CDFIs, including by expanding the Native American CDFI Assistance Program.
  • Promote Native entrepreneurship. Running a business on tribal lands should be just as easy as operating one anywhere else. But that’s not the case. That’s why Kamala will establish a new $100 billion Rural Investment Fund in Indian Country and micropolitan areas to support businesses that will prioritize hiring in those communities.

Defend the right to vote.

The right to vote is fundamental. Yet millions of Americans are still denied the right to vote by a wave of state laws intentionally designed to disenfranchise Native Americans and other people of color. Kamala will turn the tide of voter suppression. As president, she’ll fight to pass the Native American Voting Rights Act so a tribal ID is sufficient to vote. She’ll also restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act by fighting to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, require the availability of early voting, fight for automatic voter registration, and make Election Day a national holiday.

Ensure Native Americans are counted in the census.

The census is supposed to count everyone. A fair and accurate census is critical to equality under the law: it determines how many representatives we have in Congress and how hundreds of billions of grant dollars are allocated for vital programs like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Yet in past years, the census failed to count millions of people and double-counted millions of others. For example, the 1990 census missed 12.2 percent of Native Americans living on reservations, and the 2010 census missed 4.9 percent—more than two times the undercount rate of the next closest population group. Kamala will direct her Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau to consult with tribal governments on ways to increase Native American participation in the 2020 census to provide a more accurate count of Native Americans.