The U.S. Department of the Interior is asking tribal leaders for suggestions on where to focus its energy in implementing a cooperative agreement signed almost a year ago with its Canadian counterpart.
Last March, the Interior Department and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, known as INAC, signed a Memorandum of Understanding “confirming the interest of both Departments to formally share best practices, lessons learned and common challenges so as to improve our ability to better fulfill our respective agency mandates.” The two agencies have already exchanged information on the U.S. federal government’s work to develop consultation procedures following President Barack Obama’s November 5, 2009, Consultation Memorandum. The memorandum confirmed the Obama administration’s commitment “to regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials in policy decisions that have tribal implications” and directed each agency head to develop consultation action plans.
Now Interior officials are developing a work plan to include other informational exchanges and best practices.
“As we prepare this initial list of activities, we would like to seek your input on areas where we should focus our attention,” Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk said in a letter to tribal leaders February 17.
Anticipated priority areas include: northern environment and sustainable development; preservation and development of tribal economics and traditional ways of life, and education, Echo Hawk said. The Interior Department may also include the subjects of youth and women’s issues, although they are not mentioned in the text of the MOU, he said.
The MOU, a two-pager signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former INAC Minister Chuck Strahl, lists 10 potential areas where the two countries could develop “bilateral cooperation” that would unfold through mutual visits and exchanges of officials, meetings and video conferencing, cooperating on projects and consultations, exchanging information, sharing experiences, and conducting research.
The areas include policy and legislation “experience”; socioeconomic development of indigenous peoples and the north; institutional building and governance for indigenous peoples; capacity building through partnerships; preservation and development of traditional indigenous economies, traditional way of life and cultures of indigenous peoples, indigenous land tenure, title and planning; emergency preparedness and law enforcement on indigenous reserves, including how related cultural concerns are addressed in indigenous communities located near the shared international border, and other mutually decided issues.
Although most of the areas are the substance of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Declaration is not mentioned in the MOU, leaving open the question of whether it will be a point of reference in implementing the new partnership. The U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand were the only four developed nations that voted against the adoption of the UNDRIP at the U.N. on September 13, 2007. All four nations have sizeable indigenous populations with large aboriginal territories, many of which contain the minerals and other natural resources targeted for exploitation by multinational corporations.
Australia endorsed the Declaration in April 2009, followed by New Zealand in May 2010, leaving Canada and the U.S. as the only two holdouts. Then on November 12, 2010, Canada formally endorsed the Declaration, followed on December 16 by Obama’s announcement that the U.S. was “lending its support” to the indigenous human rights document.
Each country will designate officials to coordinate activities under the MOU and develop a joint work plan.
In calling on tribal leaders for suggestions, Echo Hawk noted that the federal government “appreciates” that strong relationships already exist between American Indian and Alaska Native communities in the U.S. and First Nations in Canada.
“These relationships can help inform and strengthen the sharing of best practices between the two governments,” Echo Hawk said, inviting tribal leaders not only to share their ideas but also to participate with the two governments on any of the activities or subject areas.
The Interior Department expects to develop an initial work plan by the end of March, but the process won’t end there.
“The work plan will be an organic document that continues to evolve, including any future input you may have on this effort,” Echo Hawk told tribal leaders.
The Interior Department is asking tribal leaders to file their comments and recommendations by March 7 with Eric Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fax at 202-208-4564.