Tribal government takes message of sovereignty to Congress

Councilmembers David Bean (left) and Annette Bryan (right, on couch) meet with Rep. Derek
Kilmer (D-WA), (at window).

Puyallup Tribal Council Members David Bean and Annette Bryan traveled to Washington, D.C. mid-February to continue their efforts in bringing tribal nation concerns to members of Congress. The two covered a lot of ground in just a few days, taking advantage of every minute to attend meetings and talk one-on-one with congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle.

“We were in three places at once sometimes,” Annette Bryan said. “There were a couple of staff members with us so between David and me we really did divide and conquer. We went to as many meetings as humanly possible within the hours of the day we had. That was very exciting.”

Councilman David Bean with Sen.
Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Councilman Bean said that when attending larger functions in D.C., he and Councilwoman Bryan strategically place themselves where they will be the most visible and so that they can snag a moment or two with busy congress members who are always dashing from one place to another. “Like those students who always grab a seat at the front of the class, we always make sure we grab the front row so that we’re the first people they (congressional representatives) see when they come in and the last people they see when they leave,” Councilman Bean said.

Most importantly, it’s critical for elected representatives to hear directly from tribal leaders face to face, especially under the current Trump administration when Native concerns are at great risk of being ignored or, worse, trampled.

As Councilman Bean said, “There’s no stronger messenger than ourselves, especially with the Trump administration bringing so many new people to D.C., which means they may not necessarily be familiar with tribal issue.”

Councilwoman Bryan agreed. “It makes the work much harder and the need for our voices to be there much more important. Because we enjoy a government-to-government relationship with the federal government, tribal leaders have to be the ones to talk to the elected members of congress. When we speak, because we’re elected officials they listen to what we have to say so it’s very powerful.”

Councilwoman Bryan said that while she was in D.C. she was struck by how for decades tribal leaders have been going back to constantly remind and educate congress about sovereignty and government-to-government relationships and how tribes are their own nations. “It’s really exhausting but it has to be done because if we don’t keep telling them our story, they will forget and we will be forgotten in funding, program development, Indian health services, BIA, housing…,” she said. She asked Sen. Patty Murray about her thoughts on one day introducing a bill that would require the federal government to meaningfully consult with tribes on a government-to-government basis that would transcend all the federal agencies.

“This administration is not the time and place to do that, but at some point we have to institutionalize ourselves into that system as sovereign nations so that our children’s struggle in the future isn’t as hard as ours is today,” Councilwoman Bryan said.


While in D.C., the Puyallup delegates attended the National Congress of American Indians’ (NCAI) 115th Congress Executive Council. This four-day Tribal Nations Policy Summit included a State of Indian Nations address by NCAI President Jefferson Keel and covered a wealth of topics of importance to Indian country. Many members and Congress participated along with leadership from the Department of Interior, Department of Justice, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more.

At the National Congress of American Indians.

Among the congressional representatives were Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA); Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Senator John Hoeven (D-ND); Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); and Congresswoman Betty McCollum (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party – MS). Topics covered ranged from building a consistent and healthy respect for tribal sovereignty and protecting tribal budgets, to the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, protecting tribal homelands and protecting Native women.

“They came and updated us on what they’re doing at their departments in the government and how their work with Indian programs is going,” Councilwoman Bryan explained. “Then we heard from a dozen or so congressmen and women from the House and Senate and they talked about their programs they’re working on.” She was particularly intrigued by the words of Congressman Don Young from Alaska, who spoke about the opioid crisis impacting Indian reservations and how tribal communities need to take a stronger stance against those on the reservations who provide these drugs to the youth.

“We attended fundraisers for Native women candidates for U.S. Congress and Idaho Governor,” Councilman Bean said, noting that it will be truly a historic event for both victories if congressional candidate Deb Haaland and gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan win their races. Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna, NM) would be the first Indigenous woman in Congress and Paulette Jordan (Coeur d’Alene Tribe) would be the country’s first Native American governor.

The Tribal Council members attended luncheon with Congresswoman Jacky Rosen (D-NV), talked to Congressman Markwayne Mullin’s (R-OK, Cherokee Nation) Chief of Staff, met with Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA).”

The liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant at the Tacoma Tideflats was an important issue to raise, and Councilwoman Bryan did just that, meeting with staff from the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Basically, I told them that they have to stop pointing fingers and do something for us because they have a responsibility to help us,” she said. “They are the federal nexus as the permitting authority for the plant and they’ve delegated their authority to the State, but they didn’t delegate their trust responsibility to the State. The federal government still has a responsibility to the Tribe. Just because they delegated the permitting authority doesn’t mean they still don’t have the obligation to protect the Tribe’s treaty-protected resources.”

She discussed the supplemental air quality study that has been ordered for the plant and how much more information is needed before permits are issued.

“We also met with the senior tribal liaison there and she said that the Corps of Engineers is working on an inter-agency workgroup with the State Department on how federal agencies work with sovereign nations and that will translate to tribes because we are sovereign nations. So that was exciting news.”

Puyallup Councilwoman Annette Bryan consults with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

Another big thing that happened while the Tribal Council Members were in D.C. was that President Trump released his budget. “It was terrible,” Councilwoman Bryan said. “Thirty-five percent cuts – deep, deep cuts – to tribal programs and zeroing out funding to some programs like the Indian Community Development Block Grant. So, we are hoping that they don’t get those cuts approved.”

“We sent a powerful message that just like the federal government’s budget is a reflection of their values, our budget is a reflection of our values and when we commit our dollars, we do so for those who support tribal sovereignty,” Councilman Bean said. “We wanted them to know that we’ll make the contributions, but they need to understand our issues so that folks don’t take us for granted – to take our contributions and keep your promises to defend and protect tribal sovereignty.”

Additional topics covered included:

  • De-escalate Washington’s Initiative 940 for police reforms and the Center for Disease Control’s findings that Native Americans are the most likely racial group in the U.S. to be killed by excessive force;
  • Protecting the Tribe’s cannabis enterprises, stating marijuana’s effectiveness as medicine and in helping to combat the opioid epidemic. The Puyallup Council Members urged Congressional support for lifting the federal prohibition on the adult use of cannabis in states where it is permitted under state and tribal law on Indian reservations; and
  • Governmental sovereignty when it comes to the federal government exercising jurisdiction over tribal employment matters. As Councilman Bean explained, “The National Labor Relation Board decided they were going to exercise jurisdiction over tribes on employment matters. This went against seven years of practice where there was a hands-off approach with tribes and in fact they recognized tribes as governments. About 12 years ago they took a position that tribes and tribal enterprises are no longer exempt from that philosophy and that they were going to exercise jurisdiction. We disagree. I find it ironic that the NLRB is attempting to exercise jurisdiction over tribal casinos. These are our enterprises and our tax base. So, we’re letting members of congress know that they need to continue to uphold that tribes are governments and recognize them as governments in the language as an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act. The current legislation is the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act of 2017. It’s passed the House, so we focused or efforts on the Democratic senators who will get to vote on it. We spent a lot of time educating folks that tribes are governments.”
Elected officials pause for a
photo opp: House Minority Leader
Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) with Puyallup
Councilmembers Annette Bryan and
David Bean.

The Tribal Council Members wrapped up the last two days on Capitol Hill alongside the Suquamish Tribal Council and lawyer, talking to members of Congress about a consistent, healthy respect and support for tribal sovereignty: Congressman Denny Heck (D-WA); Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA); Congressman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA); Chairman for the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs Congressman Don Young (R-AK); Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and many more.

Looking back on their experience in D.C., David Bean and Annette Bryan spoke of those who went before them to lobby for better lives for the Puyallup people “We do have big shoes to fill,” said Councilwoman Bryan. “We’ve had Tribal Council members from Puyallup for decades walking the halls of Congress and we continue to try and fill those shoes and hopefully change things little by little over time so that the generations that follow us won’t have such a hard time.”

“Special thanks to our D.C. lawyer/lobbyist and Tribal Staff for preparing us to engage in dialogue with U.S. lawmakers and their staff,” Councilman Bean said. “Hands raised to each and every one of you.”