United South and Eastern Tribes, Inc. (USET) did not stop their momentum for change in Indian Country at the semi-annual meeting in Nashville last month. The organization is moving forward with actions that they believe will help Native Americans grow and progress.
The semi-annual meeting focused on programs and services that USET, Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides to 26 federally recognized tribal nations in the south and eastern U.S. Unlike previous meetings, which tend to focus on legislative matters, the June meeting was intended to create a collaborating partnership between the three aforementioned groups.
As such, leaders from those groups, as well as Tribal representatives — two from every tribe — and federal partners discussed major issues affecting Indian Country: Opioid and substance abuse, the presidential directive on reorganization and the administration’s prioritization of infrastructure. Substance abuse and federal reorganization were the main points of discussion, resulting in a new drug task force and plans for becoming more involved with federal affairs.
USET’s new drug task force
After attendees heard numerous comments and stories about the prevalence of opioid and substance abuse, they decided to create a new drug task force at the suggestion of Chairwoman Stephanie Bryan from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. USET Executive Director Kitcki Carroll said the force, built from a partnership between the National Congress on American Indians, will target and work with groups that are focused on getting funding to help and prevent drug abuse and other related services.
“Opioid is getting much of the attention right now, inside and outside Indian Country,” Carroll said. “But what many of our board members were very clear to share with us is that there all kinds of other substance abuse issues they are experiencing in their communities, such as heroin and methamphetamine.”
Currently, the organizations are working with groups who are already known for advocating against opioid and substance abuse. Because there were already substance abuse programs in place, the force plans to further enhance their success and be available for assistance when they are needed. When an issue is resolved, the force will disassemble until they are needed again.
Carroll explained that oftentimes, federal groups ignore substance abuse in Indian Country. For example, during Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s May visit to Maine to hear about the effects of the opioid crisis, he did not acknowledge the local Wabanaki Tribe and their problems with the epidemic. After hearing about this, USET sent Price a letter expressing their disapproval of his inattention to a tribe that was next door to where he visited and suffering from the same problem as non-natives.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Tribal members are much more likely to suffer from substance abuse. Surveys conducted by the organization found that the average number of American Indians and Alaska Natives needing substance abuse treatment was even higher than the national average. Furthermore, 45.9 percent of the treatment referrals are by the Criminal Justice System, which is more than 10 percent higher than the amount of the same referrals for other races.
“This opioid epidemic is just as relevant to Indian Country as it is to non-native communities,” Carroll explained. “We took the position that if they fail to deal with the crisis in Indian Country, there will continue to be a problem.”
The Trump Administration’s reorganization
With President Trump’s plans to reorganize the executive branch of the government, USET decided it was time to coordinate a strategy against doing so. Carroll explained that it is up to USET and partner organizations to ensure that Indian Country has the opportunity to voice their opinions prior to the administration making reorganizations to prevent any intentional or unintentional diminishing of the government’s trust responsibility with Native Tribes. The organization already submitted their comments and concerns to the Department of Interior (DOI).
Carroll explained that Trump’s March 13 executive order is not the first time the administration has tried restructuring departments and organizations related to Indian Country. Organization members believe that any restructuring that impacts the trust relationship with tribal nations should be dealt with professionally and uniquely so that the tribal and federal governments can work together to avoid the U.S. not fulfilling its core trust responsibilities and accountabilities.
“This was an overall administrative charge to reduce the federal bureaucracy to achieve greater efficiencies and streamline federal functions,” Carroll said. “There are federal functions that cannot be contracted away. There are functions that should never be deferred to state or local communities for execution before the administration, whether it’s in DOI or any other federal department.”
A major issue USET constantly addresses within the region is the government’s suggestion that the services rendered to the region could be handled by other regional offices. Previously, some services were contracted out to other regions, leaving many tribes feeling as though their needs are not a priority. Accordingly, the organization has been adamant about submitting comments to federal departments, even though, according to Carroll, each department is already supposed to reach out to Indian Country on related matters.
USET national infrastructure
Although this was not a main concern during the semi-annual meeting, Carroll assured that it is not a topic that went unaddressed.
Approximately 3 months prior to the meeting, USET sent a survey to all members about infrastructure plans and problems. The survey was based on the NCIA’s national infrastructure report and asked questions about infrastructure needs and the costs associated, as well as questions about hospitals, clinics, roads, schools and more.
“It didn’t get a whole lot of conversation at the meeting because that infrastructure initiative simply doesn’t have any teeth or legs to it just yet,” Carroll explained. “Nonetheless, we wanted to raise it as a conversation point so when that time does arrive, our region is ready to engage that space in a very specific way.”
Moving forward with the Seminoles
While the semi-annual meeting is closed and on an invite-only basis, Carroll encouraged Seminole Tribe of Florida members to continue learning and staying aware. He said that it is imperative for Seminole leadership to respond to the needs of its members as it has done for decades.
“The Seminoles have gone through tremendous growth and maturation,” he explained. “It’s important that USET is well understood beyond the two representatives. It’s important for the entire Seminole leadership to be aware what their organization is doing and we also contend that it’s important for every Seminole citizen to be aware what this organization is doing as well. The only way to continue growing is making sure each one of its members is engaged and sharing ideas.”
The primary responsibility of USET is to promote and protect the inherent sovereign rights of the Tribes within the southern and eastern tribes of the U.S. Carroll said it is crucial for every tribe in the region to understand USET’s responsibility for tribal activities.
To stay informed, he recommended people visit the USET app, available on iTunes and Google Play, pay attention to the media and read annual reports that provide snapshots of activities and accomplishments.
The next USET meeting is scheduled for Oct. 8-12 in Cherokee, N.C.