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WASHINGTON — As billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan stream through various federal agencies, tribes say that the U.S. Department of Labor, in particular, could be doing a better job of addressing Indian needs related to the funding and beyond.

“We have been advocating for an ‘Indian desk and appointment’ at DOL for a variety of reasons, including its role with the programs that support enhancing employment opportunities in our communities,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe since 1977. 

Allen is a long-time advocate and leader with the National Congress of American Indians, which has been pushing Labor leaders unsuccessfully on this issue for many years and through many presidential administrations. 

Allen said that a lack of labor statistics on Indian employment is an area where Labor is falling short given its current leadership structure on addressing tribal issues. According to the office of U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, the department was mandated through 2017 legislation to collect such employment data after long-term failures by the U.S. Department of the Interior to do so. Labor is still in the early phase of determining how to collect the data. 

“(It) has not been updated in years,” notes Allen.

[RELATED: ‘BUREAUCRATIC MESS’: Congressman Young demands missing tribal labor force report]

The last such data, called the American Indian Population and Labor Force report, was posted on Interior’s website in 2013. No updates happened in the later years of the Obama administration, nor at any point during the Trump administration, despite federal law requiring a report to Congress with the data every two years.

The delay has consequences, tribal officials said, and these problems could have been alleviated if there was a top-level tribal focus at Labor. ARP funding rules created by the U.S. Department of the Treasury require tribes to provide such employment numbers. If this collection process were already in place at Labor, as it should be, tribes and the federal government would be less pressed to gather the numbers at an already sensitive economic time, and everyone would already know the scope of assistance needed. 

Because of tribal problems with submitting data, Treasury has been forced to push back its deadline from June 7 to June 21 and then to July 9 for receiving tribal employment numbers that will result in billions of dollars going out to tribes. If tribes don’t submit the numbers by the final deadline, they won’t get the portion of the money to which they are entitled. Under the ARP, $19 billion in direct funding to tribes relies specifically on tribal enrollment and employment numbers, much like the ones Labor was supposed to be collecting.

Allen said tribes have other long-standing issues with Labor, including its relationship with the independent National Labor Relations Board and that federal body’s position that it has union authority within sovereign tribal jurisdiction. Other Labor programs that need special tribal considerations relate to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as well as to unemployment and disability issues. 

“The Secretary of DOL needs a tribal adviser on these very sensitive matters regarding their obligation to the tribes via government-to-government policies and relationships,” Allen said. 

“A subject matter expert in this arena could help both tribal government leaders and department leaders in navigating the waterways of tribal labor law and potential disputes in application,” added Clara Pratte, CEO of tribal consulting firm Strongbow Strategies who was a member of the Biden campaign and transition team. 

“Often tribal leaders and their staff feel like they are re-educating elected decision makers repeatedly, and that can lead to inconsistent application of regulations and law, costing resources and time.” 

Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, told Tribal Business News that he has been a longtime supporter of “the strategic placement of tribal liaisons within key federal agencies,” including the Department of Labor.

“Providing a tribal liaison within the Department of Labor would be one more important step in ensuring that the federal government’s trust responsibilities are upheld and that Indian Country has a voice in discussions which will have an economic impact on our tribal communities,” Hoskin said. 

“Along with my support of a tribal liaison position within the Department of Labor, I believe having a Native American senior adviser in the Labor Secretary’s office is an additional step that would ensure tribal issues receive greater visibility and policy development across the Department of Labor, and that Native issues are at the forefront of intergovernmental affairs and future domestic policy discussions.”

Not just a photo op

In a recent official consultation session with Labor leaders, tribal officials made clear their requests to the Biden administration for a high-level, fully funded tribal liaison position and staff. Federal officials with the department have in turn responded that they know all too well that the need exists. Some federal officials, in fact, have been vocal about getting the concern addressed by current Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, who hails from Massachusetts, but isn’t known to have had previous strong relations with tribes.

Walsh, seeming to realize a need for improved outreach, visited the Ho-Chunk Nation on May 25 during a tour of Wisconsin. 

“I don’t want this to be a one-time visit arrangement, where I forget about you as soon as I leave,” Walsh was quoted by the tribe’s public relations office as telling tribal president Marlon WhiteEagle. “I want to continue a working relationship with the Ho-Chunk Nation and to maintain contact.”

WhiteEagle said that Walsh “pledged to not just take a photo with us, but to continue the relationship with information sharing,” according to a statement.

“Walsh showing up here shows that he is willing to work with tribes,” Angela Ward, the tribe’s labor-focused executive director, said in a statement from the tribe. “He asked if we thought the federal government has a good working relationship with the tribes. I said ‘no.’ He said that he wants to improve that relationship.”

Internal frustration

Within the Labor Department itself, career federal employees have expressed increasing consternation about Labor’s lip service to tribes throughout multiple presidential administrations.

Theresa Lujan, director of the Indian and Native American Employment Rights Program at Labor, explained some of the concerns to attendees of a June 16 virtual meeting of the department’s Native American Employment and Training Council.

“We need to have a subject matter expert in DOL in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs to help us navigate through so many of these different programs and to bring together all of these different groups, like the National Congress of American Indians,” Lujan said. “They’re doing great work, but we need to have someone who connects all of us together so that we can focus on our programs, and they can help us to navigate through to be successful. So that is my recommendation to the council.”

“That was one of the things that came out from our tribal consultation with the tribal leaders, and we really need the secretary to act on that,” Lujan added.

Without a high-level liaison in place, career federal staffers like Lujan and Athena Brown, the division chief of Indian and Native American Programs at Labor, are often tasked with responding to tribal leaders and citizens on an array of issues that sometimes fall outside their fields of expertise.

“I’m sure we are going to be pushing to get a liaison there,” responded council member Darrell Waldron, who is the executive director of the Rhode Island Indian Council. “We look forward to what’s coming.” 

‘It is a priority’

It appears as though the calls of tribal leaders are being heard within Labor. The department previously released its formal tribal consultation policy in December 2012, which it is now working to update because of a directive from President Joe Biden for all federal agencies to do so.

“The department’s leadership has heard and appreciates the concerns of tribal leaders, and we are pleased to be establishing and actively hiring for a dedicated liaison role in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs,” a spokesperson for the department told Tribal Business News.  

“In addition to this role, the department continues to seek candidates with tribal expertise and experience, and we encourage anyone with this background to apply to work with us. No concrete timeline has been established for filling this position, but it is a priority and we expect it to be completed in the near future."

Tribal advocates like Pratte are hopeful that given 40-plus Native American policy experts have filled high-level political positions throughout the Biden administration, good tribal news is coming soon at Labor.

“Having tribal expertise at every agency is critical,” Pratte said. “Tribal governments have a nexus with the federal government as a whole and not just at the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Indian Health Service. The Department of Labor is no exception.”

About The Author
Rob Capriccioso
Senior Editor
Rob Capriccioso served as senior editor for Tribal Business News. An enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Capriccioso formerly served as the D.C. bureau chief for Indian Country Today from 2011 through 2017, and started at the publication in 2008 as a general assignment reporter. He has also contributed to Inside Higher Ed, Politico, The New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian and Campaigns & Elections.
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