Gov. Office of Tribal Relations recommended for renewal until 2028
PHOENIX — Inside a crowded hearing room at the Arizona House of Representatives, several Tribal leaders and community members gathered to support the Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations.
The office faced a sunset review with the Arizona House Committee on Government on Jan. 10, which requires the Legislature to periodically review the purpose and function of state agencies to determine if continuation, revision, consolidation or termination is needed.
Gov. Katie Hobbs revitalized the Governor’s Office on Tribal Relations in 2023 and appointed Jason Chavez as the director of tribal affairs for the office. Chavez is a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and he is from the San Miguel village in the Chukut Kuk District.
Chavez spoke in front of committee members Jan. 10 providing details about the purpose of the Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations and the work it’s achieved in the last year.
The Governor’s Office on Tribal Relations was initially established as the Commission of Indian Affairs in 1953 by the 21st Legislature, according to Chavez, and it was created to consider and study conditions among Indigenous people living within the state.
“The mission of the agency was to assist and support state and federal agencies in aiding tribes and Tribal councils in Arizona to develop mutual goals, design projects for achieving those goals, and implement their plans,” Chavez said.
In 2016, the office was revitalized to its current form by the 52nd Legislature as a way to assist state agencies in implementing Tribal consultation and outreach activities.
“The office works closely with the Tribal liaisons from each agency to develop consultation policies that guide the agency’s work with 22 tribes, nations, and communities in Arizona,” Chavez said.
During his testimony, Chavez outlined some of the office’s primary purposes, including training on cross-cultural situations, coordinating activities relating to the education of Indigenous students, and promoting increased participation by Indigenous people in local and state affairs.
The office hosts two distinct events to allow the state and tribes to address issues of mutual concern: the Arizona Indian Town Hall and Indian Nations and Tribes Legislative Day.
“As part of its role to support state agencies, the office regularly facilitates leader-to-leader meetings between Tribal leaders and the leaders of state agencies around issues of mutual concern,” Chavez said.
The Office of Tribal Relations comprises a Tribal affairs advisor, a project coordinator, an executive assistant and a missing and murdered Indigenous peoples coordinator.
“Arizona has the third-largest Native American population nationally, and Tribal lands comprise more than 25% of Arizona’s total land mass,” Chavez said. “Given the significant American Indian population and surrounding Tribal lands, the purpose and role of the office is of high importance to both the state and Tribal nations.”
Chavez added that the jurisdictional issues involving taxation, gaming, natural resources, water rights, and economic development make communication among the state, tribes, nations and communities necessary.
“The office’s role is to act as a convener of stakeholders to improve dialogue and communication between the state and tribes,” he added.
During the hearing, Committee Vice-Chairman Rep. John Gillette, R-Kingman, asked about the budget for the office, which only includes funding for three full-time employees, even though there are four people who work for the office. He questioned the role of the fourth employee.
Chavez said that the office was understaffed in the former administration, resulting in inadequate fulfillment of the office’s statutory responsibilities.
“With additional staff, the GOTR is better situated to more robustly assist the state and Tribal Nations,” he added.
Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, echoed Gillette’s question, saying he was confused about where the funding for the fourth employee was coming from and exactly what role the employee plays in the office.
Chavez stated that the role in question is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Coordinator, filled by Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya, who Hobbs appointed in early 2023, when she launched the MMIP Task Force.
Chavez said the governor’s office has used federal dollars to fund staff who work closely with the office on Tribal relations, including the MMIP coordinator.
Another line of questioning came from Rep. Lydia Hernandez, D-Phoenix, who asked why the office is needed and why a liaison between Tribal Nations and state agencies is essential.
Chavez said due to Arizona’s significant Indigenous population and the large mass of Tribal land, it is of “paramount importance” to have an office solely dedicated to facilitating and conveying between the state agencies and Tribal nations as it relates to the work that the agencies do for the people of Arizona.
He added that he believes it is essential to have a single point of contact from the state of Arizona for Tribal Nations and their communities as they work with state agencies, because it helps facilitate engagement.
Members of the House Government Committee who were present voted unanimously to pass the renewal of the Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations until July 1, 2028. Rep. Jennifer Longdon was out sick.
Committee Member Rep. Mae Peshlakai, a Democrat from Cameron and a member of the Navajo Nation, applauded the renewal but said that four more years was insufficient and that the office should be renewed for longer. She hopes it will be considered again in four years.
Two representatives from the Navajo Nation were the only members of the public who testified during the hearing. One of the speakers was Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren’s Chief of Staff, Kris Beecher, who attended the hearing to read Nygren’s testimony supporting the renewal of the office.
“The Governor’s Office of Tribal Relations has also been a key partner with the Navajo Nation and with the other Nations and Tribes to move forward important initiatives,” Beecher read on Nygren’s behalf.