Disaster Relief Money Doesn’t Come Easy for U.S. Tribal Nations

July 12th, 2012

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By Lisa Piccinini, CHHS Research Assistant

Homeland Security Presidential Directives, such as the directive that establishes the National Incident Management System, often address “state, tribal, and local governments.” But what role does the federal government actually play in ensuring the security of tribes? States with high American Indian populations may know the answer, but in states like Maryland, which is home to few American Indians and no federally recognized tribes, how the U.S. does or should assist American Indians isn’t exactly making headlines.

For people from states like Maryland, here’s a little background. A federally recognized tribal nation is an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States. This unique relationship recognizes the rights of tribes as independent nations capable of determining their own government and laws while also granting members of those nations U.S. citizenship. There are 566 tribal nations in the United States, 19 of which are each individually larger than the state of Rhode Island, and 12 of which have a land base larger than the state of Delaware. Tribal nations are considered sovereign, usually dealing directly with the federal government, but they are also afforded certain benefits and protections from the United States.

For example, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the U.S. law that recognizes and responds to emergencies in tribal nations and in states. Here’s what it says in a nutshell: tribal governments seeking a declaration of a federal emergency, which can start a flow of funding and assistance, have to make a request to the state government, which must make a request to the federal government, which must review the state’s request for a Stafford declaration. While this plan outlines how the federal government assists American Indian tribal nations during an emergency or disaster, such as the current Colorado wildfires, its effectiveness is seriously limited by its inefficiency, which warrants changing the law to select a more practical solution.

Tribal governments, like states, should be able to appeal directly to the federal government for a review of their case and a determination if a Stafford declaration is warranted. FEMA supports this change for several reasons, which are well expressed in this letter to Congress. First, the administration’s “government-to-government” approach that strives to recognize tribes as sovereign entities rather than “political subdivisions of the States” warrants direct communication between those tribes and the federal government. Second, changing the current law would allow the federal government to consider declaring an emergency or disaster based only on impacts within the tribal government’s jurisdiction, rather than making the declaration dependent on the state’s condition as a whole. Finally, emergency preparedness and response, FEMA argues, would benefit from this direct communication by allowing resources to flow more quickly and directly to the areas in need, rather than being dependent on state action.

It is true that screening processes usually have merits, particularly when it comes to something like requests for federal funding – we can’t have thousands of Americans calling up FEMA every day, declaring an emergency in their backyard and demanding federal assistance. But, when it comes to managing a true emergency or disaster, a direct call from the affected tribal nation’s government may cut down on the response time that can be vital to the lives and livelihoods of the estimated 4.6 million individuals living in American Indian tribal areas in the United States today.

Amending the Stafford Act to allow direct communication between recognized tribal governments and the federal government is practical. Cutting through the red tape would likely improve overall American Indian relations with the U.S. by showing the federal government’s respect for the sovereignty of tribal nations and possibly relieve some of the administrative burden states face in coordinating American Indian concerns into their own requests. More importantly, a direct appeal for a Stafford declaration could save lives and help funnel federal assistance to where help is really needed.

For information on tribal preparedness, check out FEMA’s “Ready Indian Country” webpage.

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