– Executive Summary

Tribal nations are an important part of the homeland security community, as tribal lands form both north and south U.S. borders, employ 4,500 law enforcement personnel, and comprise 100 million acres.[1] The 574 federally recognized tribes represent 1.5 percent of the U.S. population (approximately 4.5 million members).[2] However, since the Department of Homeland Security’s creation in 2004, tribes’ homeland security preparedness has achieved varying levels of success. The strength of the relationships between tribes and the federal government partially accounts for their success, as does the availability of resources, training and exercise opportunities, and advancements in cultural awareness. Improving relationships between tribal nations and federal agencies to attain adequate disaster management outcomes is critical to protecting the lives and property of tribal members. In this connection, this thesis identifies ways to engage and enhance existing relationships between the federal government and tribes and strengthen tribal nations’ disaster preparedness capabilities through multiple annotated strategies.

In this context, this research sought to identify the steps that the Department of Homeland Security can take to strengthen tribal–federal relations to improve the homeland security enterprise’s disaster preparedness and best serve the needs of tribal nations. To this end, this thesis employed a comparative case study analysis of interviews, open-source research, and knowledge acquired in a professional capacity. Interviews were conducted with the leadership of the Oklahoma Inter-Tribal Emergency Management Coalition and with public safety leadership from the Choctaw, Otoe-Missouria, and Citizen Pottawatomi Nations. The research also examined academic and expert views on challenges and factors that boost progress in government–tribal relations, disaster preparedness, and policies that support these goals.

Scholarly explorations generally find that existing policies are some of the obstacles to achieving success. Policies combined with a lack of resourcing can significantly reduce the level of effectiveness of an emergency management program. This research elevates beneficial national-level policies and legislation, highlights policy gaps and shortfalls, and brings about cultural awareness of and progress in disaster preparedness. An expectation is that federal organizations recognize the customs and sovereign status of the tribes and respect the long-standing agreements supporting tribal self-determination. Existing policies need examining for their alignment with tribal needs and by the identified categories of tribal land.

The key findings are that two significant pieces of legislation—the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013 and Executive Order 13175—have advanced tribal preparedness but that increased technical assistance, federal financial assistance, and training resources are needed. An area that reported some progress in funding opportunities is tribal disaster declarations. As part of a legislative change to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act incorporated a Tribal Pilot Program that authorized tribal governments to apply for direct federal assistance.[3] This change recognized the sovereignty of tribal governments and promoted tribal self-determination. Federally recognized tribal governments are authorized to request a pre‑disaster emergency declaration or a major disaster declaration as direct recipients or apply as sub-recipients through the state governor as part of a state declaration.[4] Between 2013 and 2020, there were over 73 direct tribal declarations for hurricanes, pandemics, severe storms, flooding, and winter weather disasters.[5] The increasingly direct relationship between tribal and federal entities represents a shift in the level of preparedness of tribal nations. Despite the availability of tribal governments to practice this authority, the greatest hindrance to preparedness remains the lack of tribal-specific resourcing.

Although resources specifically earmarked for tribal preparedness are insufficient, many tribal nations continue to develop effective emergency management programs. These tribal programs serve their governmental needs and contribute to the needs of surrounding non-tribal communities. The primary sources of direct tribal funding are FEMA’s Tribal Homeland Security Grant, Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program, Hazard Mitigation Grant, and Public Assistance Programs. These programs have varying eligibility requirements, but none provide for general emergency management sustainment. Funding for sustained homeland security and emergency management programs remains an existing gap.

The literature indicates that incorporating cultural awareness strategies, respecting tribal sovereignty, and understanding the challenges tribes face in modern times may better prepare government organizations for future engagement with Indigenous populations. Successful disaster preparedness is predicated on positive interactions between tribal members and federal/state homeland security personnel. This relationship includes building organizational constructs that assist with engagement among whole community participants. Learning the tribal history, customs, and social norms will provide a better foundation for a trust-based relationship. The homeland security enterprise, specifically emergency management, is built on relationships, so learning customs and establishing proper communication paths may make the difference between success and failure. Another method for engaging is through training and exercise opportunities. Tribal governments are assets to the whole community and can be a force multiplier for preparedness efforts.

Robust planning, training, and exercise programs are often credited with bolstering community preparedness.[6] Supporting a comprehensive program requires a deliberate all-hazards approach to planning, which may be invaluable in building on existing or establishing new relationships. Closely linked are training and exercising for plans developed to respond to, mitigate, and recover from various homeland security hazards.[7] Testing the various plans through exercises is considered crucial in emergency management doctrine, and this is a continuous process as the emergency management program matures and community needs evolve. In support of tribal training needs, FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute has developed a suite of training courses to support the resilience of tribal nations.[8] This training can augment other opportunities, such as FEMA’s technical assistance or National Exercise Program opportunities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic response, tribal nations submitted 45 emergency declarations, which enabled FEMA to expand its direct interactions with their governments.[9] FEMA’s support to tribes has highlighted the need for further engagement with tribal governments in all facets of disaster preparedness. Despite this evaluation, several nations have demonstrated superior effectiveness with support to their neighboring tribal and non-tribal neighbors. Although multiple successful efforts have been achieved in Indian Country, several tribal response efforts suggest the need for better resourcing. Resources, tribal-specific policies, and cultural awareness training will improve the efforts between tribal and federal governments and enhance opportunities for growth in existing relationships.

[1] “Demographics,” National Congress of American Indians, June 1, 2020, https://www.ncai.org/about-tribes/demographics.

[2] “Frequently Asked Questions,” Bureau of Indian Affairs, accessed November 14, 2021, https://www.‌bia.gov/frequently-asked-questions.

[3] “Disaster Authorities: Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013,” Federal Emergency Management Agency, July 6, 2021, https://www.fema.gov/disaster/sandy-recovery-improvement-act-2013.

[4] Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Tribal Declarations Pilot Guidance: Fact Sheet” (Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2017), https://www.fema.gov/sites/default/‌files/documents/fema_tribal-declarations-pilot-guidance-fact-sheet-0-90821_1.pdf.

[5] “Declared Disasters,” Federal Emergency Management Agency, accessed July 14, 2022, https://www.fema.gov/disaster/declarations.

[6] David A. McEntire, Disaster Response and Recovery: Strategies and Tactics for Resilience, 3rd ed. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2021).

[7] McEntire.

[8] “Tribal Course Descriptions,” Federal Emergency Management Agency, Emergency Management Institute, accessed May 28, 2022, https://training.fema.gov/tribal/descriptions.aspx.

[9] Federal Emergency Management Agency, “Declared Disasters.”

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