In what has become an annual tradition, hundreds of tribal leaders descended on Washington, D.C. December 5 to take President Barack Obama up on his invitation to attend the fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference of his administration.
The meeting, held at the U.S. Department of the Interior headquarters blocks away from the White House, signified a promise kept by Obama, who told Native Americans when he was first running for president in 2008 that he would regularly meet with them in an effort to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the United States.
“Every year I look forward to this event,” Obama said in an afternoon speech to the assembled tribal leaders. “It’s especially wonderful to see so many friends that I’ve gotten to know from various nations all across the country. You guys inspire me every single day, and whenever I’ve traveled to your home states there’s been such a warm welcome that I’ve received.”
The president also highlighted some of his administration’s accomplishments on behalf of Native Americans, but said there is more work to be done, especially in terms of economic development.
“A focus that a lot of you have spoken to me about and that we’re now really trying to drill down on is expanding economic opportunity for Native Americans,” Obama said. How his team will “drill down” that big goal remains to be seen, and the president did not offer concrete details.
Federal support for tribal job growth was of particular interest for many tribal attendees, who have noted that there have been few bold and encompassing plans to reduce reservation poverty and grow Indian economies under the Obama administration to date. Some tribal leaders, like President Tony Sanchez Jr. of the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida, planned before the conference to press administration officials on economic development matters, including whether the administration is supportive of a plan for a national Native lands lottery that would allow tribes to collaborate to build a lottery system similar to that of some states. Overall, tribal gaming was not mentioned much at the conference, and whether the administration supports expansion in this area remains unclear.
Even though specific plans for tribal economic growth have yet to be laid out, by most accounts the four meetings to date have been successful, with tribal leaders having had the opportunity to discuss and highlight sovereignty, culture, self-determination, and economic concerns. Even administration organizers admitted, however, that it is difficult to address the vast needs of the 566 federally-recognized tribes in a single yearly meeting, which is why the administration and some of its agencies have regularly held smaller tribal events and meetings throughout Obama’s first term—a trend that is expected to continue over the next four years. The hope is that future presidents will keep that ball rolling.
Cathy Abramson, a long-time tribal council member with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said this year’s meeting exemplified the strengthened nation-to-nation relationship status achieved under the Obama administration. It was her first time attending one of the conferences.
“Given the fact that President Obama has established and worked alongside tribal leaders in a true government-to government relationship, tribal leaders continue to have hope that the federal government will make amends to the injustices that our people have endured,” Abramson said. “And our tribal leaders will work alongside our president to help provide a better future for all people.”
Of particular broad concern to tribal attendees at this year’s conference was the impending so-called “fiscal cliff” – which some at the meeting took to calling a “fiscal buffalo jump” – and what it will mean for the federal Indian affairs budget. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and other tribal leaders have put out position papers explaining why the federal tribal budget is not discretionary funding that should be tinkered with—rather, it is the manifestation of the United States’ trust responsibility toward tribes. All efforts should be made to protect it under any austerity or sequestration measures enacted by the federal government, tribal leaders told the administration.
“Tribal programs make up a miniscule part of the federal budget – for example the Indian Health Service is 0.12 percent of federal spending and Bureau of Indian Affairs is 0.07 percent,” Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, said in a press release issued before the conference. “An 8.2 percent across the board cut would mean deep cuts to critical tribal programs and will disproportionately impact already vulnerable Native communities.
Yvette Roubideaux, director of the Indian Health Service, said during the meeting that many tribal leaders raised the “fiscal cliff” as a looming worry. "Tribes expressed overwhelming concern about sequestration," Roubideaux said during a summary speech at the event, adding that tribal leaders believe federal Indian affairs funding should be protected from it.
Many tribal officials also saw the opportunity at the conference to make the case for a strong final push this session of Congress to secure a legislative fix to the unpopular 2009 U.S. Supreme Court Carcieri decision that calls into question the Department of the Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for all tribes—federal law that had been in place since 1934. Some tribal leaders asked Obama administration officials to press Democratic members of the Senate to vote favorably for the fix, noting that Indian votes and campaign donations made key differences in some national campaigns this year.
The administration has long expressed support for a clean Carcieri fix that would not provide lesser protections for any tribes, but some tribal leaders feel it could be doing more to strong-arm Democrats on the edge of supporting the bill, which has been trumpeted by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii. Republicans focused on Indian affairs have vowed to secure around 20 votes for the fix, so the Democrats would need somewhere around 40 to get it through the chamber, and then it would move to the House where it has successfully passed in a previous congressional session. Democratic naysayers, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have worked overtime to prevent or amend the bill because they want to use it to block tribal casino development, even though the legislation doesn’t specifically focus on gaming, but tribal homeland restoration.
Obama himself expressed support for a Carcieri fix during his speech at the event, although he stumbled over its pronunciation in a moment that garnered some quizzical looks from tribal leaders. Beyond that gaffe, several administration officials reiterated that tribal leaders raised a clean fix as a desire at the meeting.
On the culture front, there was general desire expressed at the gathering that more federal focus needs to happen on cultural and language support for tribes. It is culture and language that make tribes unique, and they are a national asset that the administration must do more to protect, tribal leaders said. Administration officials tended to agree, but firm plans in this area have yet to be announced.
After the event, Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Nation, told Indian Country Today Media Network that trust reform, natural resource protection, and support for a clean Carcieri fix were the most important messages tribal leaders shared with Obama and his team. Tribal inclusions in the Violence Against Women Act, taxation issues, and energy development were other significant issues raised by tribal leaders.
Earlier in the day, Cladoosby had introduced Obama to the crowd with a little bit of Indian humor.
"Think about it for a second," Cladoosby said. "The president loves basketball. He has an Indian name, he knows what it's like to be poor and he hasn't forgotten where he came from. And his theme song is 'Hail to the Chief.' I think he definitely qualifies as the first American Indian president. "
Obama smiled, proudly.
— A sacred sites report is scheduled to be released, said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. It will focus on better federal communication on sacred sites and protection.
— Vilsack also said there are Keepseagle settlement funds remaining for Indian farmers.
— Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebelius announced that the Indian Health Service (IHS) will be reimbursed by Department of Veterans Affairs for veteran health services IHS provides. “This agreement will make it easier for tribes to enter their own agreements with VA for the health services they provide,” she added.
— Sebelius recalled her own recent visits to reservations. On whether President Obama will follow her lead and visit a reservation in his second term, White House spokesman Shin Inouye told Indian Country Today Media Network, “I have no scheduling announcements to make.”
— Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Neal S. Wolin announced new proposed guidance that lays out broad exclusions from income to certain benefits that Indian tribal governments provide to tribal members. He also outlined new procedures for the reallocation of Tribal Economic Development Bonds.
— "We've awarded $6.6 million for business centers serving Native entrepreneurs and businesses,” said Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, adding that a Commerce tribal forum was held in the fall and one is planned for spring.
— "Native American graduation rates are unacceptably low. There are 9 states with graduation rates lower than 60 percent for Native students," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, adding that federal and state school systems must do better for Native children.
— Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Carcieri is an issue that needs to be fixed by Congress—hopefully we will see, he says.
— Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West reiterated the administration’s support for a Carcieri fix, saying it was a major issue brought up by tribal leaders at the conference.
— Labor Secretary Solis noted that her department has finalized its tribal consultation policy.
— Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced transportation grants: $15.5 million for 72 tribes to improve transit operations.