When Colonizers Dismantle First-Nation Sovereignty

In a fight over access to Medicare & Medicaid between the federal government and sovereign tribes, the president has challenged Natives’ standing as separate governments and has expressed interest in reclassifying them as a ‘race’ instead.

The announcement comes as the president seeks to require proof of employment for those receiving Medicare/Medicaid.

The legal standing of indigenous peoples in the United States has always been obscure and unsteady to say the least.

Only a select handful of native tribes have received federal designation as sovereign governments, which is a classification that provides legal standing for accommodations to be made for equal rights protection.

And while some tribes may be recognized by the authority of the state in which they live, they may not necessarily have the recognition of the federal government, which means that individuals can be part of a tribal nation without benefiting from federal protections.

To further complicate the whole issue, membership requirements are determined by each individual tribal nation, and can range from simply being descended from a current tribal member to having a specific “blood quantum.”

This disconnect can result in people being recognized by the federal government as a tribal member even when their tribe no longer counts them among their numbers.

If the president were to repeal Natives’ standing as sovereign tribes and reclassify them as a ‘race’ instead, millions of indigenous Americans will lose what little protection they have left.

The reason all of this is coming to a head is because of the president’s suggestion that a mandate be instated that requires proof of employment for those receiving Medicare/Medicaid.

Because employment is notoriously difficult to find on a native reservation, and because a change in Medicare/Medicaid protocol could affect up to 5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN), the suggestion of proof of employment has resulted in tribal leaders requesting an exemption from the work laws already enacted in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Indiana.

“Work requirements will be devastating. I don’t know how you would implement it. There are not jobs to be had on the reservation.” – Mary Smith, former Indian Health Service acting director and member of the Cherokee Nation.

The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has rejected the request multiple times, stating that to grant it would constitute “preferential treatment.”

Sovereign nation leaders argue that such claims are groundless considering Natives’ standing as separate governments naturally exempts them from the possibility racial preference.

In simpler terms, because they are technically separate nation-states, their application for an exemption is based on their legal autonomy rather than their ethnic or racial heritage, and therefore, if granted, cannot be considered ‘racial preference’ or ‘preferential treatment.’

“The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans. It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world — they’ve paid through land and massacres — and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”  – Smith

So far, HHS has not agreed.

This is where things get just a little slimy.

So far, tribal leaders’ efforts to secure the exemption for their people has been stalled by HHS officials who say that they cannot provide the documentation that backs up their claim that Native Americans are not eligible for exemption from the work requirements — purportedly due to “ongoing, unspecified litigation.”

Basically, they can’t provide any documentation that supports their decision to deny the exemption at an exceptionally critical and convenient time.

Meanwhile, as HHS holds out on Natives, they have recently announced the implementation of protections and accommodations long sought by conservative religious groups, including the right of healthcare workers to refuse to administer an abortion.

So, while Natives’ historical standing continues to go ignored and disrespected, the U.S. government shows once again that it values white, Christian lives over indigenous peoples.

“No other country in the world, as far as we know, is so fixated with with one segment of the population that it is constantly creating representations of them. It’s a deep paradox: for Americans, American Indians are essential to their own sense of themselves, but while imagery of American Indians is everywhere, it’s a curtain to prevent Americans knowing who American Indians truly are.”  – Cécile Ganteaume, associate curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington





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