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NIHB opens health conference with discussions on sovereignty, responses to Broken Promises report

TEMECULA, Calif. — Nearly 600 Tribal health providers, experts and advocates gathered Sept. 17 for the opening session of the National Indian Health Board’s (NIHB) annual National Tribal Health Conference to hear how Tribal leaders are strengthening sovereignty while partnering with federal agencies to ensure trust obligations are upheld.

A Tribal leader panel discussion focused on tribal sovereignty in relation to health equity. Panelists included NIHB Chair and Great Plains Area representative, Victoria Kitcheyan; National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President and Chickasaw Nation Lt. Governor, Jefferson Keel; St. Regis Mohawk Nation Tribal Chief, Beverly Cook; and Lummi Nation Tribal Councilmember, Nick Lewis.

NIHB Chair Kitcheyan said that sovereignty means “we are in charge of the destiny of our people, and we cannot let the federal government dictate what we do on our lands.

I want to remind people that our Tribal nations existed before their role and will live on past their role. So, we must remind them of our sovereignty.”

NCAI President Keel said that everything tribes do is rooted in sovereignty. Remembering a time when Tribal citizens waited all day to see a doctor, he said “We can sit back and wait on the U.S. to deliver on their promises – or we can take it on ourselves and do it better because we know how to care for our people.”

Though sovereignty is the driving force for Tribal self-governance, Tribal leaders still must demand that the federal government live up to its treaty and trust responsibilities. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) Chair Catherine Lhamon presented on the Commission’s recent Broken Promises report which confirms that conditions are poor, and disparities are significant within Tribal communities.

“The Commission’s report documented harrowing inequities across every issue area the Commission examined including public safety, healthcare, housing, education and economic development.

We called for immediate federal action to ensure Native Americans and Native Hawaiians live, work, and learn with the same expectations for opportunity and equality to which all other Americans have access.

The Commission will continue to urge the President and Congress to do all that is necessary to fulfill our trust responsibilities and recognize the sovereignty of tribal governments, to ensure that these inequities come to an end,” said USCCR Chair Lhamon.

The response to the Broken Promises report from Tribes prompted action from allies in Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM-1st) are seeking input on how best to achieve budgetary certainty for Indian programs through the Honoring Promises to Native Nations Act.

Related to tribal health, the Honoring Promises proposal would ensure mandatory funding for the Indian Health Service (IHS); implement and full all components of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act; strengthen the Special Diabetes Program for Indians; provide funding for urban Indian health programs and behavioral health; and expand the role of Tribal Epidemiology Centers.

In a video message, Congresswoman Haaland said that, “Every community deserves access to quality health care programs and to live healthy lives, but often times tribal communities are left behind.

The failure of the federal government to live up to its trust responsibility leads to stark health disparities in Indian Country.

I’m proud of the work the National Indian Health Board does to improve health outcomes in our communities and am working as an ally in Congress.

It’s why Senator Elizabeth Warren and I are working on the Honoring our Promises to Native Nations proposal to further the conversation about what Indian Country needs for these promises to be fulfilled and to empower tribal governments to serve their people.”

IHS Principal Deputy Director RADM Michael Weahkee also gave an update on programs and funding, sharing that through a national HIV initiative, IHS was able to fund the Cherokee Nation’s Ending the HIV Epidemic pilot project and will award nearly $2.4 million to Tribal Epidemiology Centers to address HIV in tribal communities.

RADM Weahkee also mentioned that the agency concluded its tribal consultation and urban confer to seek input and guidance on the opioid grant program that will be modeled after SDPI.