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Summit puts federal focus on Indian Country

President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan into law March 11. (Photo via PolitiFact)

A two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 15 and Nov. 16 served as the setting for a slew of announcements regarding Native Americans.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) opened the event and introduced President Joe Biden, who said Haaland had “energized Indian Country,” since her confirmation in March.

“This is a big day. This summit is a matter of dignity,” Biden said. “We have to continue to stand up for the dignity of tribal nations.”

It’s the first tribal summit for the Biden administration, which wasn’t held during the Trump administration. Leaders from hundreds of U.S. tribes joined the virtual event, with almost 40 as speakers. The summit coincides with National Native American Heritage Month.

A number of topics were discussed, including education, treaty rights, sacred lands, economic and workforce development, housing, infrastructure, energy and climate change.

First lady Jill Biden, an English teacher, talked about the importance of preserving Native languages.

Health care and Covid-19 were on participants’ minds as Native Americans have contracted the virus at a rate three and a half times that of white people. In some states, Native Americans are dying at a rate five times their population share. Biden said, however, that in large part due to tribal leadership, Indian Country is now one of the most vaccinated populations from the virus.

One of Biden’s first summit announcements was an initiative to reduce violent crime in Indian Country, where Native Americans are more than twice as likely to be victims, and at least two times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared to other races, according to the Association on American Indian Affairs.

Biden said through executive order he’d directed several Cabinet departments – Justice, Homeland Security and the Interior – to collaborate to combat human trafficking and crime on Native American lands. The order also strengthens participation in Amber Alert programs and requires national training programs for federal agents and the appointment of liaisons who can speak with family members and advocates.

‘Our own decisions’

Biden has been recognized for consulting with tribal leaders on federal policy development and reinforcing that tribes themselves make their own best decisions.

“I applaud this administration’s commitment to upholding the U.S.’s trust responsibility to our tribal nations, by strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship and working to empower tribal nations to govern our own communities to make our own decisions,” Shannon Holsey, the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians president, said in remarks on the summit’s first day.

Tribal leaders have also given Biden credit for hiring 50 Indigenous people in administration positions. He gets high marks for dedicating $31 billion for Indian Country in his American Rescue Plan and another $13 billion in his infrastructure bill, the most significant investments for Indian Country by any administration.

Biden also reestablished the White House Council on Native American Affairs and became the first president to issue a proclamation designating Oct. 11 as Indigenous People’s Day.

Environmentalists have praised Biden for permanently protecting Bears Ear National Monument in Utah, reversing a Trump administration decision. His administration has also pledged to incorporate tribes’ ecological knowledge in its approach to climate change. At the summit, the administration announced plans to seek a 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling in Chaco Canyon, an ancient Native American heritage site in northwestern New Mexico.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative was also announced, to further address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools. The initiative calls for an investigation on the loss of life and the lasting effects of residential Indian boarding schools.

More information on the White Houses’ Indian Country initiatives are here.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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