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What Is Tribal Consultation?

Tribes are nations that have the right to make decisions about how they govern and protect their people on tribal lands. This right is called “tribal sovereignty.” Tribal sovereignty isn’t a right that the federal government “gave” to tribes; it is something we have always possessed.

One way the federal government shows their support for tribal sovereignty is through tribal consultation. Tribal consultation is when federal agencies ask tribal governments for their input about federal policies that will directly impact them, from changes to plant gathering policies in national parks, to permitting oil pipelines on tribal land.

The importance of tribal consultation was first outlined in a 2000 Executive Order, that requested that all federal agencies consult with tribal governments on policies that impact tribal communities. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples also stresses the importance of governments consulting with Indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, no federal law provides a step-by-step outline of what consultation should look like. This means that each federal agency has a different policy about how and when they should consult with tribes.

For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees Indian Health Service, requires that departmental staff consult with tribal governments if a policy:

  • impacts tribal communities,
  • affects the relationship between the federal government and tribes, or
  • impacts how power and responsibilities are distributed between the federal government and tribes.

Once HHS staff identify a policy that will require tribal consultation, they must identify all tribes who may be impacted by the policy and figure out the best way to consult with them, which could include teleconferences, in person meetings, or roundtables. HHS also holds an Annual Tribal Budget and Policy Consultation Session which gives all tribal governments the ability to provide feedback on new policies.

Tribal consultation is one important way that tribal governments provide feedback on federal policies. Because tribal consultation is an extension of the “government-to-government” relationship between the federal government and tribal governments, elected tribal leaders (or people appointed by elected tribal leaders) usually participate in these consultations. Even if you can’t directly participate in these sessions, you can learn when sessions are held. With this knowledge you can advocate to your tribal council and provide individual testimony on policies important to you. You also have the opportunity to encourage your leadership to participate in consultation sessions.

One helpful resource is the National Congress of American Indian’s Consultation Support Center. This website includes a list of all upcoming tribal consultation sessions, a list of federal agency-specific documents related to tribal consultation, and a calendar with which tribal consultations are occurring.

Here are a few more resources to learn more about tribal sovereignty, treaties, and tribal nation governance:

Author: Abaki Beck (Blackfeet and Red River Metis) is a freelance writer and public health researcher passionate about health equity in Native communities, particularly for justice-involved community members. She earned her Master’s in Public Health in 2020 and grew up in Montana.

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