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Biden pledges new commitments, respect for tribal nations

Audience members listen as President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Tribal Nations Summit at the Department of the Interior in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Audience members listen as President Joe Biden speaks at the White House Tribal Nations Summit at the Department of the Interior in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022.

President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged to give Native Americans a stronger voice in federal affairs, promising at the first in-person summit on tribal affairs in six years that he would foster “respect for Indigenous knowledge and tribal consultations” in government decision-making.

Biden announced new steps to establish uniform standards for federal agencies to consult with tribes, a plan to revitalize Native languages and new efforts to strengthen the tribal rights that are outlined in existing treaties with Washington.

Biden, who spoke on the opening day of the two-day summit, also announced $135 million in federal money to relocate to safe ground 11 tribal communities that face the impacts of climate-related environmental threats, from Maine to Alaska.

“There are tribal communities at risk of being washed away,” he told summit participants. “It’s devastating.”

Villages are at risk of severe infrastructure damage due to coastal erosion and extreme weather events. A 2020 study from the Interior Department said $5 billion would be needed over the next 50 years for tribal relocation due to environmental damage.

The summit coincides with National Native American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in November. Leaders and representatives from hundreds of Native American tribes were in attendance at the summit.

The Biden administration said its goal is to build on previous progress and create opportunities for lasting change in Indian Country. But the lasting nature of Biden’s commitments is not guaranteed without codified laws and regulations.

The president said he is requesting $9.1 billion for the Indian Health Service, which provides medical care to members of federally recognized tribes, and that Congress for the first time should make the funding mandatory.

Whether Congress will act on that and other tribal issues is another matter.

“It changes with each president,” said Jonathan Nez, the leader of the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. “And even if it’s legislated, it takes a significant effort especially when, at times, tribal issues take the back seat to larger, national issues.”

Federal agencies recently have been creating tribal advisory councils and reimagining consultation policies that go beyond a “check the box” exercise. Some of the more significant changes involve incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices into decision-making and federal research.

Nez has been advocating for a speedier process to get infrastructure projects, including internet access, on the Navajo Nation, which stretches 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. He said it requires constant advocacy.

“You’ve got some new congressional officials who just got elected also, so there’s going to be more educating that has to be done,” he said.

The administration also announced that the Commerce Department will work with tribes to co-manage public resources such as water and fisheries. The Agriculture Department and the Interior Department have signed 20 co-stewardship agreements with tribes, and an additional 60 are under review, the administration said.

The tribal nations summit wasn’t held during then-President Donald Trump’s administration. The Biden administration held one virtually last year as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the U.S. and highlighted deepening and long-standing inequities in tribal communities.

Both administrations signed off on legislation that infused much-needed funding into Indian Country to help address health care, lost revenue, housing, internet access and other needs. The 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. received a combined $20 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money under the Biden administration.

Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which provided $8 billion to tribes and Alaska Native corporations but had more rigid guidelines on how it could be spent. The Treasury Department was sued over how that funding was allocated and faced harsh criticism for the time it took to get the money to tribes.

Biden’s Treasury Department said it prioritized tribal engagement and feedback in distributing funding from the latest aid package. A report released Wednesday by the administration outlines how tribes spent the money on more than 3,000 projects and services.

The Karuk Tribe in northwestern California, for example, used some of the aid for permanent and temporary housing after a wildfire that burned 200 homes in the Klamath Mountains displaced tribal members.

The Native Village of Deering and other tribal governments in Alaska pooled funds to ensure access to preschool and free meals, along with extra servings in an area where food has been scarce.

Other tribal communities across the U.S. have spent the money on housing for tribal members, transportation to veterans hospitals, after-school facilities, language and culture programs, emergency services and health care facilities.

Biden promised to make official presidential visits to Indian Country, saying “the United States owes a solemn trust and treaty obligation that we haven’t always lived up to. I will do so in the enduring spirit of our nation-to-nation relationship, the spirit of friendship, stewardship, and respect.”

He stressed the need for “respect for tribes as nations and treaties as law, ... respect for Indigenous knowledge and tribal consultations as a key part of federal agency decision making. ”