WASHINGTON — The challenges facing Native American youth and strengthening government-to-government relationships between Indian Country and the U.S. government were among the focal points Nov. 5 at the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C.
For the seventh consecutive year, President Barack Obama hosted the conference, which drew representatives from the 567 federally recognized Tribes.
During a conference call prior to the event, White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz said the Obama administration is working to ensure that the initiatives it enacted over the last seven years will remain in place through future administrations.
“We think about this very deeply,” Muñoz said. “It’s tremendously important that the progress we made should be a source of momentum.”
The administration is working to institutionalize these programs and is committed to improving coordination across the federal government to promote strategic and efficient programing for Indian Country. For example, ConnectHome, a program designed to make high-speed Internet more affordable, was launched in July during a visit by the president to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.
“My expectation is whoever is the next president, they’re going to see that we’ve been able to build, I think, some real trust with tribal nations,” Obama said during a panel discussion at the conference.
According to a statement from the White House, the administration, through the White House Council on Native American Affairs, is reinforcing the message that all federal trust responsibility is held by the entire government and is developing cross-agency partnerships to promote information sharing and better leverage existing programs to promote meaningful outcomes for Indian Country.
“The conference is a reflection of the Obama administration’s commitment to Indian Country,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said during the conference call. “We have bipartisan support in Congress for a lot of the work we are doing and that will help ensure the next administration does what Congress wants them to do.”
During the last 18 months, members of the president’s cabinet traveled through Indian Country and met with youth from 12 Tribes in nine states where they identified challenges and potential solutions to help Native youth reach their potential.
“We want to make sure young Native American leaders are connected to each other,” Muñoz said. “We found there is great value in learning from each other and many have developed their own youth groups to support each other. Connecting them to each other helps them grow into leaders in their communities.”
During the conference, Obama met with a group of Native American youth in a panel moderated by Jude Schimmel, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The former University of Louisville women’s basketball player is a member of Generation Indigenous, an organization the president launched last year after a visit to Standing Rock Sioux Indian Nation in North Dakota. Gen-I aims to engage youth and improve their lives.
“Even as we prepare our tribal youth to succeed in the 21st century, we also have to preserve and protect Native culture and heritage,” Obama said. “As I’ve said before, if you start losing your language and your culture, your sense of connection to your ancestors and touchstones that date back generations, you can start feeling adrift. And if you’re living in a society that devalues your culture, or perpetuates stereotypes, you may be devaluing yourself. So we have to preserve those bonds, break stereotypes.”
With 14 months left in office for the Obama administration, Secretary Jewell said “the clock is ticking down but we are challenging people to use the clock to move forward.”