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December 06, 2012

President Obama Hosts 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference

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Native American military veterans, including a member of the Native American Women Warriors, Marine Justin Fisher and a Navajo Code Talker from WWII (bottom right), take their seats at the closing session of the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, President Barack Obama hosted the 4th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, a day-long event that brings together leaders and representatives from the country's 566 federally recognized tribes and members of the Obama administration. Calling it "the cornerstone of the Administration’s outreach and engagement with tribal governments," President Obama has held the conference each year since he took office as part of his original campaign pledge to improve nation-to-nation relations between Indian Country and the U.S. government. He is the first American President to hold annual meetings with Native American leaders.

This year's conference, held at the Department of the Interior's headquarters, began with opening remarks by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, (full remarks here), who highlighted several of the Interior Department's accomplishments during the past year, including payouts in the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, a landmark case over mismanagement of federal lands held in trust for Native Americans.

First brought to court in 1996, the class-action lawsuit was led by plaintiff Elouise Cobell of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, a trustee of the museum who passed away last year. When President Obama signed the settlement into law on Dec. 9, 2010, he called it a "small measure of justice" for the wrongdoings. (Read more about the Cobell settlement here.)

Remarks were also delivered by:

  • Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education (Full transcript here)
  • Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Department of the Treasury (Read the press release here)
  • Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank, Department of Commerce (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture (Read the press release here)
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Members of the administration during the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference. L-R: Tony West, Acting Associate Attorny General, Dept. of Justice; Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, Small Business Administration; Secretary Ray LaHood, Dept. of Transportation; and Secretary Hilda Solis, Dept. of Labor. (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

Following opening remarks, administration officials invited tribal leaders to attend breakout sessions that were closed to the public. The roundtables, led by various Obama administration officials, addressed various topics:

  • Strengthening Tribal Communities: Economic Development, Housing, Energy and Infrastructure, led by Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture; and Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, FEMA.
  • Protecting our Communities: Law Enforcement and Disaster Relief, led by James Cole, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice; and Craig Fugate, Administrator, FEMA.
  • Securing Our Future: Cultural Prottection, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, led by Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor, Department of the Interior; and Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice.
  • Building Healthy Communities, Excellence in Education and Native American Youth, led by Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; and Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education, White House Domestic Policy Council.
  • Strengthening and Advancing the Government-to-Government Relationship, led by Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes, Department of the Interior; and Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Department of Justice.

The closing session featured remarks by the leaders of each roundtable, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The Department of Justice's Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West noted that, for him, one of the main takeaways of the conference is that no two tribes are alike, and that these distinctions should be taken into consideration when shaping federal policy. The challenges facing landless tribes are vastly different than those confronting tribes whose federal recognition was terminated and later restored, he said.

Other concerns raised during the breakout sessions included:

  • The disproportionate effect of climate change on indigenous communities.
  • The rise of violence and drug trafficking on tribal land.
  • The effect of the fiscal cliff on Native American communities. 
  • Enforcing NAGRPA and protecting sacred tribal land and resources from mineral development.
  • Expanded education and suicide prevention for Native youth.
  • Internet and transportation infrastructure on reservations.

Read Indian Country Today's recap.   

Read MSNBC's What You Didn’t See at the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

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President Barack Obama addresses tribal leaders at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Dec. 5. 2012 (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

After being welcomed onstage by Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Nation, President Obama delivered the conference's closing remarks. He began by paying tribute to tribal elder Sonny Black Eagle, who had adopted him into the Crow Nation during his 2008 campaign after he became the first Presidential candidate in history to visit the Crow reservation. Black Eagle passed away last week, just eight days shy of his 79th birthday.

“While we can’t celebrate that milestone with him today, we can celebrate his remarkable life and all that happened along the way," President Obama said. "Because Sonny’s story is not just one man’s journey to keep his culture alive, but one country’s journey to keep perfecting itself.”

Watch President Obama's full remarks on the White House website.

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President Barack Obama greets members of the audience following his remarks at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

In its executive summary for the Tribal Nations conference, the White House detailed its achievements for Indian Country during the President's first term, which included:

  • The HEARTH Act, which restores tribal authority to govern the leasing and management of their own lands.
  • The Tribal Law and Order Act, which improves coordination between federal law enforcement and tribal justice systems.
  • Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was permanently reauthorized as part of the Affordable Care Act
  • In addition to Cobell case, the settlement of the Keepseagle class-action lawsuit, which awarded $680 million to 4,200 Native American farmers and ranchers who were systematically denied loans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981 to 1999.

What do you think of the issues addressed at this year’s Tribal Nations Conference? What are some of the issues facing your communities? Share your thoughts with us!

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