There are 574 ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse federally recognized Indian Tribes in the United States. These Tribes are distinct political entities whose inherent sovereignty predates the United States and is reflected in their government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government. The United States has undertaken a unique trust responsibility to protect and support Tribes and their members through treaties, statutes, and historical relations with Tribes.
In 2018, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that—due to a variety of reasons such as historical discriminatory policies, insufficient resources, and inefficient federal program delivery—American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to rank near the bottom of all Americans in terms of health, education, and employment.
Several federal agencies are responsible for providing direct services or funding to federally recognized Tribes and their members—including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), and the Indian Health Service (IHS). However, they face a number of challenges to improving the effectiveness and efficiency of their tribal programs. (In fact, improving federal management of programs that serve tribes and their members is on the High Risk List.)
- IHS has faced numerous challenges in administering health care services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. For example, recent cases of provider misconduct, including sexual abuse and physical assault, have raised questions about the agency’s ability to protect patients from harm. IHS lacks a consistent process to review its regional offices' trainings and policies. It also doesn’t have a standard format to document reviews of information (such as patient complaints) to ensure oversight at its facilities.
- BIE-funded schools are required to provide services for eligible students with disabilities, such as learning disabilities or health impairments. Each of these students has an individualized education plan outlining the type, frequency, and duration of services the school is legally required to provide—e.g., physical therapy. Schools must log when and for how long the services in each plan are provided to students. However, schools didn’t provide or didn’t log almost 40% of students’ planned service time. Strengthening oversight and support activities can help BIE address the unique needs of students with disabilities.
- Indian country contains oil, gas, and coal, as well as potential for wind and solar energy development. Multiple federal and tribal agencies are involved in regulating development of these resources and distributing royalty payments. However, BIA’s inefficient management of these resources has hindered development. In 2015, the Indian Energy Service Center was established to improve collaboration and management in this area. But the Center's strategic goals do not clearly state what is to be achieved or how to measure achievement.
- Federal agencies are required by law to provide a variety of programs and services to tribes and their members. The Office of Management and Budget publishes an annual report on federal funding for programs that benefit Native Americans, but tribal stakeholders have expressed concerns about the report's transparency. For instance, the agency data shown in the report lacks details about what it represents, making it challenging for some people to understand and use the data. Also, few agencies have formal processes for incorporating tribal input and needs into their budgets.
- More than 70 out of over 200 Alaska Native villages face significant threats from erosion, flooding, or thawing permafrost—and climate change is expected to exacerbate these threats. Federal agencies have worked to repair damaged infrastructure in Alaska Native villages, and build their resilience to environmental threats. However, federal assistance would be more effective if there was interagency and intergovernmental coordination among federal agencies and state and tribal governments to address these threats.
Erosion and thawing permafrost undermine the land beneath homes in Newtok, Alaska
- Broadband is critical to modern life. But despite federal efforts, broadband access on tribal lands has lagged behind the rest of the country. In 2020, 18% of people living on tribal lands couldn’t access broadband service, compared to 4% of people in non-tribal areas. Numerous federal programs are working to increase broadband access on tribal lands. However, tribes have struggled to identify which federal program meets their needs, and have had difficulty navigating complex application processes.
- Research shows that violence against American Indian and Alaska Native women in the U.S. is a crisis. Cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women persist nationwide, but without more comprehensive case data in federal databases, the full extent of the problem is unknown. Two 2020 laws have requirements that could help address aspects of the crisis, depending on how the Departments of Justice and Interior implement them. But the agencies have missed some of the requirements' deadlines. For example, they have not yet set up a joint commission to explore the issue.
- Demand for homeownership is high on reservations and other tribal areas, but access to mortgage loans may be limited. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) operates the Native American Direct Loan program to provide loans to eligible Native American veterans to purchase, construct, or improve homes on certain types of land. However, the VA has made relatively few loans under this program.