Biden's 'Plan for Tribal Nations' offers policy insight

Kim Teehee was nominated by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. to be the Cherokee Nation's first delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was unanimously confirmed by the Tribal Council in August. COURTESY

TAHLEQUAH -- With a new administration in the White House, the Cherokee Nation and other tribes can expect some changes in federal policy toward Indian Country.

During his campaign, President Joe Biden gave the tribes advance notification about his priorities concerning Native Americans, unveiling the "Plan for Tribal Nations" that he and Vice President Kamala Harris will pursue. (https://joebiden.com/tribalnations/)

Among those who advised on the Biden-Harris Plan was Kimberly Teehee, the CN's nominee as a delegate to Congress -- the first for any tribal nation -- and a senior policy adviser for Native American affairs during the administration of Barack Obama.

Because of COVID, she is still waiting to be seated in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"I had some early input on it," Teehee said. "The Biden-Harris campaign had some people working on the policy papers who I worked with when I was in the Obama White House. When it came time to develop a tribal nations policy paper, they reached it out. It wasn't just me.... I was not on any working group. My input was actually last summer on the framework, and then they developed a working group."

Teehee called the final plan "extensive." It touches on topics including Native voting rights; the federal-tribal relationships; health care; education; economic and community development; and violence against Native women, children and the elderly. Teehee said other candidates sought advice and released comprehensive platforms, adding that they did not regard Indian Country as "an afterthought."

She also said tribes should not focus entirely on the tribal nations plan -- that national policies can indicate intentions of the administration and offer guidance for Native governments.

"Biden has national priorities that are not squarely focused on Indian Country," Teehee said. "If you develop policies for Native Americans, you look at what Biden is doing nationally, and you see if it is possible to ride the coattails of those policies... making sure we are expressly mentioned."

Teehee offered the example of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package proffered by the administration, which includes $20 billion in additional assistance to tribes against the pandemic.

"Another priority for us is just upholding treaty rights," Teehee said. "We believe we are working with a friendly administration that will support the Cherokee Nation's priority to seat its delegate in the House of Representatives. The other piece of that is appropriations -- just regular order."

When impasses in Congress result in government shutdowns, the Native governments also see their funding interrupted. Teehee said the Biden administration is open to "mandatory funding," specifically of the Indian Health Service to insulate tribes from Beltway infighting.

"About 90 percent of the funding the tribes get through Congress is discretionary," she said. "Shutdowns are very disruptive to tribal governments. Mandatory funding is like Social Security or the SNAP program. Make it mandatory, and if there are lapses in funding then those things still get funded. At the very least, the Indian Health Service should be mandatorily funded."

Teehee said the COVID pandemic, while exposing vulnerabilities in health care for Natives, has also revealed infrastructure needs --�also addressed in the Biden-Harris plan.

"There's our need for broadband if we are going to distance learn successfully," she said. "In addition to that: telehealth, telemedicine, making sure our elders have access they need. We've put in place some short-term fixes -- putting up hotspot signs and making sure citizens have access to mobile Wifi. But we need long term funding to address this on a permanent basis. When the stimulus package was passed last December it included $1 billion from the Commerce Department for a tribal connectivity grant."

Once she is seated in Congress, Teehee will have many more opportunities to bring the ideas and concerns of the CN and the wider Native community to the White House and Capitol Hill.

"Because COVID delayed the request to have our delegate seated in the House of Representatives, we have picked that back up," she said. "We are revisiting all the conversations that we've had previously. I'm hopeful that we will get seated this session."