Homeland Security from a Tribal Context

Lisa Figueroa


A gap exists between the federal government and the 567 tribal nations in the United States, which hampers tribal inclusion in homeland security efforts. American Indian and Alaskan Native lands comprise 100 million acres of territory within the United States, including 250 miles of borderlands—potentially a formidable rift in the nation’s homeland security if this population is excluded. The United States homeland security enterprise necessarily assumes tribal participation, cooperation, and communication in upholding its mission to “ensure a homeland that is safe, secure, and resilient against terrorism and other hazards.”[1] If not well supported with staffing, training, and funding, the tribal nations could struggle to fulfill such federal expectations.

Indigenous tribes were here, as functioning governments, long before the British colonized and created the 13 colonies that eventually became the United States. Settlers made treaties with the individual governments, as one would negotiate with any other sovereign nation. The rights of tribes were retained, not granted. Sovereignty inherently recognizes the authority and capability of the tribe, nation, or government entity. Recognizing each tribe as an individual nation offers some perspective: the relationship between tribes and the United States is about international complexity and relations.  And when the balance of power is uneven, such as the domestic dependent status of tribes within the United States, it needs to be addressed. Laws and policies for the American Indians exist because of tribal sovereignty, not the other way around.

In the original Homeland Security Act of 2002, the words “tribes” and “tribal” only appear four times; with recent amendments, however, the number is more than 200.[2] The Act—the purpose of which was to define the homeland security enterprise—failed to recognize tribal rights, and tribes immediately noticed the policy’s diminishment of  their sovereignty. Bills were introduced and legal challenges began. The White House’s published analysis of the Act admits many of the definitions used were “borrowed from pre-existing statutes such as the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Act,” which had been observed by some to violate the sovereignty of tribes by lumping them in with local governments under state authority. As a statement from the National Congress of American Indians emphasizes, “It is a dramatic irony that tribal peoples indigenous to what is now called the United States have always come together to secure our homelands, a phrase now adopted by the federal government, but are now excluded from participating in strategies and processes to better protect everyone, including tribal citizens.”[3]

The main concern regarding the Homeland Security Act was that the tribal nations were balanced precariously “at the mercy of their state executives.”[4] The lack of tribal recognition indicated a “fail in keeping with consistent with federal policy.”[5] And although many bills and reports were filed, inappropriate terminology still leaves a gap in homeland security and is a legal insufficiency for the tribes. On a procedural level, the fact that some Indian lands cross state borders compounds the difficulties. If the federal policies do not help the tribes that depend on their protections, tribal leaders are not likely to trust new policies—especially those that are intrusive to a tribe, such as policies that deal with homeland security issues along an international border.

Two important changes are needed: improvements in the terminology used in American Indian policies and collaboration efforts between the two sets of sovereign governments—the federal government and tribal nation governments. Repetitive lists of “Federal, State, local, and tribal” within Department of Homeland Security documents continually belittle tribal sovereignty; it has become a mantra that diminishes tribal nations’ perceived authority. The belittling sequencing—with tribal sovereignty at the lowest level—needs to be singled out as inconsistent with tribal law, and it needs to be changed. In the same vein, clearer definitions of consultation and collaboration between the government entities will reinforce the consistent use of this powerful and unifying tool to build a stronger policy or plan, regardless of the department involved.

According to the 2010 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review, “Tribal Leaders are responsible for the public safety and welfare of their membership.”[6] Also, tribal governments must “ensure the provision of essential services to members within their communities, and are responsible for developing emergency response and mitigation plans.”[7] If the tribal leaders are responsible for these activities but lack the personnel, funding, or training to put together plans and agreements with other local agencies, they are essentially powerless. Without a tax base to build financial revenue, tribes are at a disadvantage for providing adequate support for an emergency management program without federal funding. In the middle of this cycle, if the tribe needs the funding and lacks a grant writer or cannot hire one, there is no way for the tribe to exit this loop of unpreparedness.

To integrate into federal homeland security efforts, tribal nations need to have preparedness capabilities, including sufficient staff, training, and funding. The federal policies that hinder these elements need to be evaluated carefully. Only after the tribes are authentically integrated into the federal system of emergency preparedness can the United States hope to close this homeland security gap. The process of preparing for a disaster, either natural or human-caused, involves coordination with the tribal government. The momentum from this coordination can improve resiliency and give the tribal nations more support by pairing their efforts with national efforts. Respect for tribal sovereignty and an acceptance and admission of the importance of tribal leadership must occur at this foundational level. When addressing this gap in homeland security, the flow of progress from basic to more complex needs to create an integrated federal system of national security.

[1] “Our Mission,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS), last modified August 4, 2011, www.dhs.gov/our-mission.

[2] “Summary: H.R. 5005—107th Congress (2001-2002),” Congress, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.congress.gov/bill/107th-congress/house-bill/5005; Homeland Security Act of 2002, Pub. L. No. 107-296 (2018), as amended, https://legcounsel.house.gov/Comps/Homeland%20Security%20

[3] Tom Zoellner, “Homeland Security Concerns Continue,” Indian Country Media, September 18, 2003, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/homeland-security-concerns-continue/.

[4] Heidi K. Adams, “Sovereignty, Safety, and Security: Tribal Governments under the Stafford and Homeland Security Acts,” American Indian Law Journal 1, no. 5 (2017): 131, https://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/ailj/vol1/iss1/5.

[5] Adams, “Sovereignty, Safety, and Security,” 138.

[6] DHS, Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report: A Strategic Framework for a Secure Homeland (Washington, DC: DHS, February 2010), A-6, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/

[7] DHS, A-6.

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