On the campaign trail, President Barack Obama promised a renewed commitment to Indian country by reaching out to tribes, listening to their concerns, and vowing to give Indians a seat at the table. Now, after years of being ignored and marginalized by politicians in Washington, we finally have a partner in the White House. We finally have that seat at the table.
As the associate director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House, and a proud member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, I know this administration is listening. In the first few months in office, the president has consulted with representatives of many constituency groups and made good on his promise to propose a budget with Indian country in mind.
This budget cannot fix all of our country’s problems overnight, but it is the first step towards improving the lives of Native Americans. It also proves that the issues most important to tribal nations will be addressed by President Obama and his administration. The government-to-government relationship will be a full and equal partnership.
It begins with health care. Today, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality rate than the average American because of poverty, discrimination and inadequate education. This puts extra strain on IHS, which makes health care services available to 1.9 million Native Americans. Still, many Indians struggle to get access to health care.
That’s why the president’s plan includes a significant increase for IHS. The president’s plan directs hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding to IHS – one of the largest increases in 20 years. With more than $4 billion for this effort, the budget begins a multi-year investment to strengthen and expand services and prevention initiatives that will address persistent health disparities.
This commitment is on top of IHS funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided $500 million for health information technology, construction, equipment and improvements for hospitals and health care clinics in Indian country.
President Obama’s budget also focuses on strengthening Native communities through education and law enforcement – giving nations and families the tools they need to succeed. The president’s budget includes $161 million in increased funding for the BIA, and additional funding that will be available through the departments of Justice and Education. All this will serve to strengthen tribal courts, detention centers and police programs to help Native Americans protect their communities.
Specifically, the president’s budget increases funding for BIA law enforcement by more than $30 million and will strengthen police programs and detention centers to help Native Americans protect their communities. This funding will be used to hire and train law enforcement and correctional officers to help fight violent crime and illegal drugs in Indian country. The budget also adds funds for tribal courts, which play an important role in the exercise of tribal sovereignty. These efforts build on the funding for BIA and the Department of Justice in the Recovery Act, which together provided more than $230 million for construction and improvements of tribal detention centers.
To ensure that Indian students will be able to compete with young people across the country and around the world, the budget also provides $50 million in funding earlier in the academic year for tribal colleges. The budget also increases funding for scholarships and tribal college operations by $10 million. This plan will give colleges greater financial security and ensure that the next generation of tribal leaders receives the education they deserve while maintaining Indian culture and tradition. These efforts build on the more than $275 million in Recovery Act funding that will be used for construction and repairs at Bureau of Indian Education elementary and secondary schools.
President Obama’s budget looks out for Indian country, and the administration will continue to do so in the months and years to come. In addition to a tribal point of contact in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, the White House will be appointing an American Indian policy advisor to serve as a link between Indian nations and the president. After eight years of struggling to be heard, this is only the beginning of the relationship between Washington and tribal leaders.