Native American contributions to U.S. national security have been largely unheralded. Native Americans have served in the U.S. Armed Forces in every major military conflict since the Revolutionary War. Twenty-eight Native Americans have the earned the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for military valor. The Navajo Code Talkers of World War II played an amazing role in helping the U.S. and allies achieve victory. Today over 24,000 Native Americans serve in the Armed Forces and have the highest per capita rate of military service of any ethnic group protecting the homeland. And more than 150,000 veterans self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) has been asked, by Congress, to establish a National Native American Veterans Memorial, to give “all Americans the opportunity to learn of the proud and courageous tradition of service of Native Americans in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
This proud tradition of service is also exemplified at the Department of Homeland Security. The agency maintains the Tribal Desk within the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs as the designated lead for tribal relations and consultation at the DHS. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have especially strong tribal partnerships within the agency.
CBP has worked closely with Native American leaders to strengthen security along both the Southwest and Northern borders; many of the Border Patrol sectors encompass Indian Country that is adjacent to U.S. borders. Cooperation between DHS and tribal police has significantly impacted border security, especially in remote areas where drug smugglers and other illegally seeking to enter the U.S. operate. 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 assets.
Gary Edwards, CEO of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association (NNALEA), states that there are 25 tribal reservations located on and/or across the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico and 41 tribal reservations are within 100 miles of those international U.S. borders. Since Native Americans are around a large part of our borders, they are, and should continue to be, a part of our border security initiatives.
Cooperation between DHS and Native Americans has already played a significant role in our boarder security, especially in remote areas where drug smugglers try to enter the U.S. illegally. The “Shadow Wolves” are an elite group of Native American trackers who are part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Since 1972, the Shadow Wolves have been tracking drug smugglers attempting to cross the border by looking for footprints, tire tracks, items snagged on branches, bent or broken twigs, or even a single fiber of cloth. Their patrol area covers 2,800,000 acres and officers estimated recently they have seized an average of 60,000 pounds of illegal drugs a year.
FEMA is also engaged with Native Americans primarily to help prepare for emergency response. FEMA’s Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) has been active in training Native Americans from 23 American Indian tribes and 10 states in preparation for mass casualty responses to natural or man-made disasters. This training included operating command center communications as well as 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.
Almost a decade ago, DHS unveiled a department initiative calling for increased engagement with federally recognized tribes across the United States – building on “current tribal partnerships to protect the safety and security of all people on tribal lands and throughout the nation.” The agency solicited feedback from all 564 federally recognized tribes on the plan. The plan called for hiring 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; dedicating staff resources to tribal engagement and enhancing training for DHS tribal liaisons and other employees who regularly engage tribal governments and representatives; promoting the incorporation of tribal public safety and law enforcement agencies into state and local fusion centers; developing a Tribal Resource Guide for tribal leadership highlighting pertinent DHS programs and initiatives; collaborating with tribal governments in the development of DHS policies that have tribal implications; and working across the federal government to formalize a “one-stop shop” for tribal governments for emergency management mitigation, planning, response and recovery efforts.
The DHS Tribal Consultation Policy is a great foundation to expand on cooperation with Native American tribes. There is a major shortage of skilled cybersecurity workers at DHS while its mandate is increasing in scope and responsibilities. It would be great if a serious effort were made by Congress and the agency to cultivate the next generation of cybersecurity experts from many of the economically depressed areas within Indian Country.
There is already a working model in government for this kind of investment: the Department of Homeland Security’s veterans cyber hiring pilot, which was designed to build the department’s cyber workforce and enhance opportunities for veterans to continue to serve our country in cybersecurity. Hopefully DHS can emulate the success of the veteran cybersecurity program for Native Americans.
Investment by government, industry, and academia in training Native Americans in an accelerated cybersecurity curriculum combined with real-world experience via internships and fellowships would bring high dividends to cyber readiness down the line. At the same time, it would bolster the nation’s pipeline for skilled digital workers. The further engagement of Native American tribal partners who have a strong, proven heritage of dedication and service will be a blessing to the future of homeland security. As the digital realm becomes part of the homeland security imperative, it would be very beneficial to have more Native Americans contributing to cybersecurity and other security efforts. DHS and Native Americans have a special partnership that needs to be celebrated and enhanced.