By Chuck Brooks
I remember attending an event at the Library of Congress several years ago when I was serving at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that highlighted the contributions Native Americans have made to DHS. I came away very impressed by the dedication and capabilities of Native Americans who serve in law enforcement, and the important role many are playing in securing our borders.
Unfortunately, Native American contributions to US national security have been largely unheralded. The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II played an amazing role in helping the US and its allies achieve victory in World War II. Today, over 22,000 Native Americans serve in the Armed Forces and have the highest per capita serving in the military of any ethnic group protecting the homeland.
At DHS, Native Americans continue this proud tradition of service. DHS maintains the Tribal Desk within the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs as the designated lead for tribal relations and consultation at DHS. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have especially strong tribal partnerships. CBP works closely with Native American leaders to strengthen security along the nation’s Southwest and Northern borders, as many US Border Patrol sectors encompass Indian land adjacent to these borders.
Cooperation between DHS and tribal police has also significantly impacted the security of our borders, especially in remote areas where drug smugglers and others illegally seek to enter the United States. Native American lands also contain many critical infrastructures such as dams, power transmission facilities, oil and gas fields, railroads and interstate highways that are potential terrorist targets. Ongoing programs and projects at DHS have been established to maximize cooperation between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement to protect these vital infrastructure assets.
FEMA is engaged with Native Americans primarily to prepare for responding to emergencies. FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness is active in training Native Americans from 23 tribes and ten states in preparation for mass casualty responses to natural or man-made disasters. This training includes operating command center communications and medical and public healthcare operations. These realistic scenarios are also becoming part of online coursework and will no doubt improve protection of both people and land.
In 2010, DHS unveiled The Tribal and Coordination Plan, an initiative that calls for increased consultation and coordination with federally recognized tribes across the United States that builds on “current tribal partnerships to protect the safety and security of all people on tribal lands and throughout the nations.” Under the plan, DHS solicited feedback from all 564 federally-recognized tribes and hired a dedicated tribal liaison in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to serve as a central point of contact for tribal governments and coordinate the work of the tribal liaisons across the department.
The initiative also called for dedicating staff resources to tribal engagement and enhancing training for DHS tribal liaisons and other employees that regularly engage tribal governments and representatives; incorporating tribal public safety and law enforcement agencies into state and local fusion centers; development of a Tribal Resource Guide for tribal leadership that highlights pertinent DHS programs and initiatives; and collaboration with tribal governments in the development of DHS policies that have tribal implications. In addition, the plan calls for working across the federal government to formalize a “one stop shop” for tribal governments for emergency management mitigation, planning, response and recovery efforts.
DHS’s Tribal and Coordination Plan is a great foundation to expand on the cooperation with Native American Tribes. For example, with a major shortage of skilled cybersecurity workers at DHS as the department’s mandate is increasing in scope and responsibilities, it would be great if a serious effort were made by Congress and DHS to cultivate the next generation of cybersecurity experts from many of the economically depressed areas within the Indian tribes.
Investment by government, industry and academia to train Native Americans in an accelerated cybersecurity curriculum, combined with real world experience via internships and fellowships, would yield high dividends for America’s cyber-readiness. Further engagement of Native American Tribal partners that have a strong, proven heritage of dedication and service could be a blessing for the future of homeland security.
Reprinted from Homeland Security Today and Indian Country News
Charles (Chuck) Brooks was the Department of Homeland Security’s first Director of Legislative Affairs for the Science & Technology Directorate. A former faculty member of John Hopkins University, he is widely published on the topics of innovation, public/private partnerships, emerging technologies, homeland security and cybersecurity.