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The Trump agenda has Native American tribes feeling under siege

Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Every time black dust blows through the windswept Moapa River Indian Reservation about an hour's drive from Las Vegas, residents grow more unnerved.

This tribal community of just 225 has seen more than its share of sickness. Tribal council member Vickie Simmons watched her brother, a former coal plant worker, die at age 31 from cardiomyopathy, the same thing that killed a fellow young plant worker down the street. Nearby, two babies in houses alongside each other were born with brain defects. One died at age 2, the other has had multiple surgeries.

In February, Simmons said, a series of infections took the life of the tribe's chairman, who had been fighting to force the cleanup of what he and others contended was discarded toxic ash blowing from the recently shuttered coal plant a few hundred yards away. He was 44.

So the Trump administration's move to scrap federal rules mandating a thorough cleanup of such ash landed in the community like slap in the face, Simmons said.

"People should not be this sick," said Simmons, who, like others in the community rejects assurances by plant owners that the black dust is unrelated to the facility closed last year. "We are way out here in this rural place. Their thinking seems to be that if nobody is seeing it, it is not happening."

The halting of the coal ash rule comes amid a flurry of early actions by the administration that have tribes on edge. Relationships between tribes and the federal government have always been strained. But some tribal leaders say they are shocked by how little regard this administration has shown, particularly as its agenda of advancing fossil fuel interests collides with efforts to restore Native American lands and rights.

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"It feels as though we are going backwards," said Sarah Harris, a member of the Mohegan Tribal Council in Connecticut and a former high level Indian Affairs staffer at the Interior Department. "This is not how it works with most administrations. I can't think of another time in recent history that the relationship has been this bad."

The National Congress of American Indians, the largest bipartisan advocacy group for tribes, has repeatedly rebuked or expressed alarm with the administration. It calls President Donald Trump's plan to eviscerate the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, which is filled with sacred sites, a threat to tribal communities and their freedom to practice religion. It accuses the administration of illegally ignoring the concerns of tribes in its rush to greenlight the Dakota Access oil pipeline. It watched the administration disregard its strenuous opposition to allowing states to force work requirements on Medicaid recipients living in sovereign Indian communities, a move that flouts decades of established law.

The Medicaid move puts at risk other laws protecting Native American rights because it creates a precedent of refusing to recognize that tribes are sovereign political entities empowered to make the same decisions as other state and local governments in how programs are administered, said Kevin Washburn, who headed Indian Affairs under the Obama administration. "Are they going to apply this theory to other federal programs?" Washburn said. "The fundamental conception of Indian law is being questioned by this policy."

Trump's withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change drew its own round of condemnation, as dozens of native villages in Alaska face permanent evacuation because of rising seas. Even the package of tax cuts Trump championed were a slight, as they included none of the provisions the alliance of tribes had sought.

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