Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans U.S. Commission on Civil Rights New Report

December 20, 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released its report, Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans. The Commission majority found that the federal government is not meeting its trust responsibilities and that budgets and spending of federal agencies sponsoring Native American and Native Hawaiian programs, including the Departments of Health and Human Services, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Education, are inadequate. 

“This report confirms what Indian Country knows too well—federal programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of American Indians and Alaska Natives remain chronically underfund, leaving many basic needs unmet,” said Jefferson Keel, President, National Congress of American Indians. 

Prompted by concerns raised by Native American communities and Members of Congress, Broken Promises updates the Commission’s 2003 report, A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country, which similarly evaluated expenditures of federal agencies on Native American programs. Broken Promises, based on expert and public input, and extensive research and analysis, offers actionable recommendations to the President, Congress, and agencies to meet the federal government’s trust obligations. 

“The harrowing inequities documented in this report, across every issue area the Commission examined, cry out for immediate federal action to ensure Native Americans live, work, and learn with the same expectations for opportunity and equality to which all other Americans have access,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, Commission Chairperson. 

Key findings from the Commission majority include: 

  • Federal programs designed to support the social and economic wellbeing of Native Americans remain chronically underfunded and sometimes inefficiently structured, which leaves many basic needs in the Native American community unmet and contributes to the inequities observed in Native American communities. 
  • Unequal treatment of tribal governments and lack of full recognition of their sovereign status by state and federal governments, laws, and policies diminish tribal self-determination and negatively impact health, criminal justice, education, housing, and economic outcomes. 
  • In the areas of public safety and justice, for example: in 2017, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) estimated it funded only 21 percent of law enforcement, 49 percent of detention center, and 3 percent of tribal court needs. 
  • During the last 15 years, most federal funding for Native American programs has remained stagnant; yet even when federal funding for Native American programs has increased, these levels have not kept pace with declines in real spending power 

Key recommendations from the Commission majority include: 

  • The United States expects all nations to live up to their treaty obligations; it should live up to its own. 
  • Congress should honor the federal government’s trust obligations and pass a spending package to fully address unmet needs, targeting the most critical needs for immediate investment. This spending package should also address the funding necessary for the buildout of unmet essential utilities and core infrastructure needs in Indian Country such as electricity, water, telecommunications, and roads. 
  • The federal government should provide steady, equitable, and non-discretionary funding directly to tribal nations to support public safety, health care, education, housing, and economic development of Native tribes and people. It should also provide sufficient funding, training, tools, and resources to tribal nations to provide their citizens the opportunity to exercise self-government and self-determination. 
  • The Commission also reversed its previous opposition to federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. Congress should pass legislation facilitating the reorganization of a Native Hawaiian governing entity and to confirm the special political and legal relationship between the United States and such an entity. 

In February 2016, the Commission held a public briefing on the subject, hearing from a broad range of panelists. Their testimony, along with that submitted by members of the public, played an integral part in informing the report. In addition, the Commission considered evidence from federal officials, tribal officials, community leaders and advocates, scholars and researchers, and legal experts; official visits to Standing Rock in North Dakota, Pine Ridge in South Dakota, and the Quinault Nation in Washington; and activities of its Advisory Committees, among others.