Hundreds of tribal leaders descended on Washington 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 kept promise 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.
By most accounts the meetings to date have been useful, with tribal leaders having had the opportunity to discuss and highlight sovereignty, culture, self-determination, and economic concerns. Even administration organizers admit, 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 as well.
The president is scheduled to address the tribal leaders today at 3 p.m. ET.
Morning session highlights:
— A sacred sites report will be released on December 6, says USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. It will focus on better federal communication on sacred sites and protection.
— Vilsack also says there are Keepseagle settlement funds remaining for Indian farmers.
— Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Service Kathleen Sebelius announces 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 adds.
— Sebelius recalls 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 tells Indian Country Today Media Network, “I have no scheduling announcements to make.”
— "We've awarded $6.6 million for business centers serving Native entrepreneurs and businesses,” says 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," says Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, adding that federal and state school systems must do better for Native children.
— Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Neal S. Wolin announces new proposed guidance that lays out broad exclusions from income to certain benefits that Indian tribal governments provide to tribal members. He also outlines new procedures for the reallocation of Tribal Economic Development Bonds.
— Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says Carcieri is an issue that needs to be fixed by Congress—hopefully we will see, he says.
— Salazar says that this White House Tribal Nations Conference signifies that Obama understands Indian concerns.
Indian Country Today Media Network will have updates from the conference throughout the day.