A “New Era” for Tribes

The 2021 White House Tribal Nations Summit—the first in five years—highlighted the Biden administration’s commitment to strengthening tribal self determination and supporting the development of Native communities. STEM issues were at the top of the agenda.

By Paul Boyer

President Joe Biden prepares to sign an executive order addressing violence against Native Americans, with members of his administration, including Jill Biden (left) and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (right, in beaded moccasins). Photo is a screenshot from the November 15 summit.

Emphasizing his commitment to strengthening the “nation to nation” relationship with tribes, President Biden this week announced multiple new initiatives intended to protect sacred lands, promote Native language revitalization, and increase Native participation in the fight against climate change.

These and other new programs and policies were unveiled at the 2021 White House Native Nations Summit on November 15 and 16. Held virtually and broadcast live, the two-day event featured presentations by President Biden, Jill Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and several cabinet members, including Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

The summit also included questions and comments from tribal leaders located across the country.

Speaking at a White House podium, backed by Zoom-screen images of participating tribal leaders, President Biden began by thanking “Danny Inouye”—the late senator from Hawaii, a strong advocate for Native American issues—for teaching him the lesson that “tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions.”

After noting several recent administrative actions, including cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline and restoring protection of Bears Ears National Monument, Biden announced five new initiatives, including a proposal to ban oil and gas drilling on federal lands around Chaco Canyon in Arizona and a pledge to incorporate tribal ecological knowledge in the management of federal lands.

Biden also highlighted the anticipated impact of the recently passed infrastructure bill, which he said will provide $13 billion in direct investment to Native communities. His participation in the summit concluded with the signing of a new executive order aimed at preventing violence again Native Americans.

A brief presentation by First Lady Jill Biden also announced the signing of a Memorandum of Agreement between multiple federal agencies that promotes “the protection of Native languages through the establishment of a Native Language Working Group,” according to the White House. (All of the initiatives introduced at the summit—including multiple announcements by the USDA–are also summarized in a White House fact sheet.)

The remainder of the summit was largely organized around panel discussions led by members of Biden’s cabinet and other top administration officials. Selected tribal leaders from across the country participated by asking questions and sharing information about the needs of their communities. Topics included the Covid-19 pandemic, education, Native languages, climate change, treaty rights and sacred lands, and public safety and justice, among others.

A “new era” for tribes

The Native Nations Summit was the first since 2016. After a five-year hiatus—the length of Donald Trump’s presidency and the first year of the pandemic—Native leaders expressed gratitude toward the administration for organizing the event and making Native issues a priority. There was a palpable sense of relief among tribal participants that they were now working with an administration sympathetic to their needs and supportive of their goals.

Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada, thanked the administration for its openness and engagement. “We’re more consulted than ever before,” she said.

Most other Native leaders said much the same, with several arguing that the Biden administration’s embrace of Native communities and respect for Native knowledge represented something fundamentally new.

Cabinet members, in turn, emphasized that the Biden administration is determined to right past wrongs, respect tribal rights, and increase funding for education and tribal development. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a cabinet-level position, stressed President Biden’s personal commitment to Native issues and argued that his administration, less than a year old, “has already made historic investments in Indian Country.”

“This is a new era for tribes,” she said.

Although a climate of goodwill dominated, all agreed that more needs to be done to empower tribes and that the Biden administration will need to prove its commitment through action. When Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe Vice President Alicia Mousseau asked Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to explain what, exactly, the federal government’s trust responsibility meant to him, Becerra replied, “It is a relationship not fully fulfilled.” 

How tribes and the federal government can work together was the focus of the various panels.

Covid-19 highlights tribal leadership in public health

Presentations related to Covid-19 emphasized both the scale of the tragedy and the leadership tribes provided in promoting the health and safety of tribal members.

President Biden noted in his opening remarks that Native Americans were 3.5 times more likely to contract Covid-19 than the white population and Dr. Anthony Fauci, in his subsequent presentation, said that Native communities also suffered disproportionately higher rates of hospitalization and death.

However, Fauci and others also observed that Native Americans now have the highest vaccination rate of any group in the country, due, in large part, to public health policies within tribes and effective work by tribal health clinics. These policies were pursued even in regions of the country where surrounding non-Native communities are resistant to vaccinations and vocally opposed to policies that slowed spread of the virus.

Fauci briefed tribal leaders on the benefits of booster shots, promising that all Americans would soon be eligible for additional jabs.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussing the impact of Covid-19 on Native communities.

Panelists also discussed the need for Native Americans to more fully participate in health-related research. Fauci agreed that it was especially important to get young Native students engaged in research and cited the NIH-IHS Native American Research Centers for Health Program (NARCH) as one effort working to “increase capacity building on tribal-led research.”

More poignantly, Bishop Paiute Tribal Chairman Tilford Denver urged the administration to provide support to tribes looking after children orphaned by the death of parents due to Covid-19, noting that the placement of Native children is a difficult and often fraught issue.

“What you need, we will try to provide,” said HHS Secretary Becerra. “Thanks for President Biden, we have more resources to tackle Covid.”

Education for the 93 percent

Throughout the summit, tribally controlled colleges were discussed, at least briefly, on several occasions. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona talked about his recent visit to Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, recalling a conversation with a student who spoke about the institution’s role in nurturing pride and a sense of identity.

During the panel on education, however, most discussion focused on K-12 issues and it was frequently noted that the majority of Native students—93 percent was the figure repeatedly cited—are enrolled in public, not tribally run schools. There was a clear consensus that the federal government should do more to support the retention and academic success of this group of learners.

Invited to offer policy ideas, Native leaders participating in the education panel provided a cascade of recommendations, including the establishment of a “complete office of Indian education” within the Department of Education. Aaron Payment, chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe, noted that the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) passed a resolution urging the naming of an assistant secretary of Indian education within the department, and pushed the Biden administration to take action on this request.

Other education-related proposals included providing more funding for mental health support services, training for school boards, and development of drop-out prevention programs. Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head in Massachusetts, also recommended support for vocational education programs, arguing that some students would prefer training for trades.

There was also broad agreement that education funding should come to tribes directly, not pass through states, which would give tribes a stronger voice in policy making and allow more flexibility in use of funds.

In response, Haaland emphasized the need for tribal input before the development of federal policies, noting that, too often, the government created programs and priorities without tribal consultation. She also talked about the recently announced Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which is described as “a comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies.”

The urgency of Native languages revitalization

Brief discussion of Native languages during the education panel focused on the rapid loss of fluent speakers, but also included examples of tribally-led revitalization efforts. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskins Jr. summarized his nation’s $16 million effort to sustain the Cherokee language through coordinated immersion and teacher training programs, including development of an innovative “language community” for fluent speakers.

Hoskins praised the Biden administration’s engagement with language revitalization efforts and urged more financial support. “It’s the least the United States can do,” he said, while making it clear that tribal efforts would continue with or without support from the federal government.

Climate change and the role of traditional ecological knowledge

Discussion of climate change impacts and solutions, held during the second day of the summit, highlighted the challenges Native communities are already facing.

Governor Stephen Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community, which is regularly confronting drought, fires, and extreme heat, called climate change an “existential threat” to his community. Melanie Bahnke, president of Kawerak, Inc, which represents 20 federally recognized tribes in the Bering Straits region of Alaska, where permafrost melt is literally undermining the infrastructure of Native communities, worried that Alaska Natives would have to abandon homes and become climate refugees. On the Suquamish Reservation of Washington State, Chairman Leonard Forsman said declining salmon runs, the result of warming water and surrounding development, has reached crisis levels.

Administration panelists and tribal leaders during the climate change discussion.

All three leaders stressed that climate change threatens not only the health and safety of residents, but also erodes traditional lifestyles, including hunting and fishing rights guaranteed in treaties.

Speakers and administration panelists agreed that tribes are already leading efforts to protect land and develop climate change policy. Lewis said that his tribe played a critical role in pushing for the closure of the largest coal fired power plant in the West, and he also held up as a model the tribe’s innovative work in recharging the local aquifer, which also restored water flow to a portion of the Gila River. With an image of the river in the background of his Zoom screen, Lewis talked about the return of birds and native plants to the once dry riverbed.

These stories of success illustrate the importance of the administration’s new Interagency Working Group on Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge, said panelist Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. The goal is to study and find ways to incorporate traditional knowledge into research, including efforts to address climate change.

Emphasizing that the Biden administration is committed to a science-based approach to climate policy, she said that traditional ecological knowledge is “a critical component of science.” Traditional knowledge provides a deeper understanding of the environment, incorporates large social issues, and brings an important Native perspective to climate change research.

Native participation also means having a place at the table in the formation of national policy and international agreements, argued Bahnke, since they are on the front lines of climate change and have the most at stake. Gina McCarthy, the White House’s Climate Advisor agreed, and said that at the recently concluded COP26 talks in Glasgow, the U.S. hosted a panel featuring the perspectives of Native leaders.

When asked to list needs, Native leaders hoped that the Biden administration would provide support for tribes working to sustain treaty rights; provide funding needed to manage current environmental changes, such as flooding and fires; and help support development of green energy, among other actions.

Administration representatives emphasized that billions of dollars are being requested or allocated for tribes for infrastructure, which leaders acknowledged with gratitude. At the same time, they also hoped that the federal government would take the long view. “Infrastructure,” said Forsman, also means attention to the “ecological infrastructure.”

Bahnke said administrations come and go, which means polices tend to focus on making short term impacts. She would like to see the current administration look past the next election.

“The infrastructure bill was a huge win,” she said, “but let’s start planning for the next ten thousand generations.”

Additional panels were held on economic issues, housing and energy, along with several talks and presentations not mentioned here. The full summit is archived on YouTube.

Paul Boyer is editor of Native Science Report

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