As in past years, federal agency officials made several promises to tribal leaders during the November 13 White House Tribal Nations Conference. Indian Country Today Media Network was on hand to gather 10 of the top promises, and the White House says it will have a report of its own sometime in the future:
1) President Barack Obama will visit Indian country in 2014. The main announcement at this year’s conference – or at least the one that garnered the most attention – was that Obama said he will visit somewhere in Indian country in 2014. He didn’t say where, but tribal leaders are suggesting a broad tour of diverse reservations to help him understand the full scope of issues facing tribal citizens today.
2) Interior and Health and Human Services officials will address tribal contract support cost (CSC) policy and settlements. “We hear you loud and clear.” That became the mantra from administration officials before and after the conference regarding tribal concerns that the Office of Management and Budget has proposed to cap future CSC reimbursements due to tribes, while avoiding paying billions already due to tribes in this area, despite Supreme Court rulings that says the federal government is responsible for paying. “[W]e’re going to keep working with you and Congress to find a solution,” the president said in a speech at the event.
3) Double Indian lands taken into trust. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced the administration’s plan to place more than 500,000 acres of land into trust by the end of the president’s term. Interior has placed more than 230,000 acres in trust since Obama took office. “Restoring land to tribes is not only important to achieve self-determination, but it can also be a spark for economic development in Indian country – generating investment, new jobs and revenues,” Jewell said. “Placing more than 500,000 acres of land in trust over the next three years is unprecedented in modern times, and I’m committed to making it happen.”
4) Transportation projects. Big tribal applause was awarded to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx when he announced a commitment to helping build Indian country’s infrastructure. “The Department of Transportation's position is clear,” Foxx said. “Residents of our tribal nations need and deserve safe roads and bridges and access to reliable public transportation. You well know, as well as I do, that transportation is a life-blood to communities, families.”
5) Statement of principles by Attorney General Eric Holder. The Justice Department leader promised to closely work with tribal nations to improve safety and justice in Indian country. He said he will release a “Statement of Principles" that will guide the department’s work with Indian country. “This proposed statement will codify our determination to serve not as a patron – but as a partner – in fighting crime and enforcing the law in Indian country,” Holder said. “And it will institutionalize our commitment to Indian tribes – serving as a blueprint for reinforcing relationships, reforming the criminal justice system, and aggressively enforcing federal laws and civil rights protections.”
6) Another push for a legislative fix to the Supreme Court Carcieri/Patchak issues. Interior has taken solid administrative steps to solve the land-into-trust complications created by the Supreme Court. But future administrations might not be so proactive, so Indian country has requested clean and lasting legislative fixes to the rulings that would allow all tribes to be equal benefactors of Interior’s ability to take lands into trust for them. Several agency officials and Obama himself said they would keep pushing Congress to pass such fixes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the conference she will only support fixes that limit Indian gaming, and the president has yet to publicly denounce her position.
7) Energy involvement. “We want to work closely with tribal leaders to develop renewable resources on tribal lands, in particular,” said Ernest Moniz, secretary of the Department of Energy, in a speech at the summit. “Today, we are very pleased to announce that nine tribes have been selected to receive over $7 million to further deploy clean energy projects.” Some tribal leaders pressed for support for non-renewable projects as well, which agency officials said they heard, but little concrete support was offered.
8) Economic development. Obama and his staffers said in a one-on-one meeting with twelve tribal leaders the day before the event that he wants to focus on improving the economy in Indian country for the rest of his time as president. The administration seems to still be at a gathering information stage here. Jobs and economic reports are long overdue from Interior that would shed more light on what is needed in this area. Jewell said a final rule involving Patchak recently issued by Assistant Secretary—Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn will provide greater certainty to tribes in their ability to develop recently acquired trust lands for purposes such as housing, schools and economic development.
9) Strengthen the White House Council on Native American Affairs. This new council of high-level agency secretaries and staff doesn’t have any Native Americans on it, so the administration has vowed improved tribal consultation to make sure this council has teeth.
10) Climate change assistance. This administration wants to focus on climate change for the president’s remaining time in office, and it is making tribes a part of its plan. “The health of tribal nations depends on the health of tribal lands,” Obama said in his speech to tribal leaders. “So it falls on all of us to protect the extraordinary beauty of those lands for future generations. And already, many of your lands have felt the impacts of a changing climate, including more extreme flooding and droughts. That’s why, as part of the Climate Action Plan I announced this year, my administration is partnering with you to identify where your lands are vulnerable to climate change, how we can make them more resilient.”