Outgoing Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has issued a Cabinet exit memo that highlights in part her progress on Indian affairs over the past four years. Notably, she does not shy away from areas of deficit, especially regarding perennial Indian education issues that have long plagued the Department of the Interior.
The memo, titled “Toward a Bright Future: The Interior Department’s Record of Progress,” notes that the Obama administration had from its beginning in 2009 made the restoration of the federal government's relationship with tribes "a top priority." Based on close consultation with Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians, Jewell said in the memo that the U.S. government "...[had] opened a new chapter with First Americans based on self-determination and self-governance."
Jewell said she hopes future Interior Secretaries will continue to strengthen consultation as tribes move forward with large infrastructure projects that might impact their land, resources, and treaty rights.
Jewell noted, too, her support in creating "new avenues to honor our government-to-government relationships." Prime amongst these undertakings was the White House Council on Native American Affairs, established by executive order in 2013, which Sally Jewell chaired. The council proved to be "a vital tool," according to the memo, in synchronizing the plethora of interconnected issues that infuse Indian country. Instead of an afterthought in federal policy and programs, the council implores all agencies to coordinate on Indian policy and to uphold trust and treaty obligations. For Sally Jewell, it is "absolutely critical" that engagement at this level continue to carry forward the progress made in the past eight years.
Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian and former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs under the Clinton administration, said there were numerous ways Jewell’s leadership proved her commitment to Indian country.
"I really appreciate how Secretary Jewell also empowered Native American appointees, [including] DOI Solicitor Hilary Tompkins and [former] Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn,” Gover said. "It became increasingly evident over time that they had her ear and that she took them seriously. This led to very effective advocacy for Indian country and laid the foundation for what is expected from DOI in those positions."
Of her accomplishments, the return of almost 1.7 million acres of fractionated Indian land holdings to individual tribal governments was high on Jewell’s list, and she pointed to the record number of lawsuits or claims that Interior in collaboration with the Department of Justice settled during the Obama years. More than 100 tribes benefitted from settlements that encompassed decades-long litigation of tribal assets and natural resources held in trust. Her tenure also saw the overhauling of leasing regulations that returned the authority over their use to the tribes.
Jewell recognized, too, significant areas of deficit that must be addressed for tribes to thrive. Chief among them are significant issues related to Native youth.
"It is not acceptable that Native youth continue to have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools, or that Bureau of Indian Education schools are some of the lowest performing in the country,” Jewell wrote in the memo. “This Administration has begun to remove the barriers between Native youth and opportunities to succeed, but critical work remains across the Administration to address the often interrelated and systemic issues facing Native families, such as poverty, substance abuse, suicide and incarceration."
Although the Obama administration made considerable investments in Indian education and great inroads in transforming the Bureau of Indian Education, there is indeed much left to be done, including increased tribal oversight of student education, school administration and operations of Indian-focused schools. To guide this transformation, the Obama administration has provided the incoming Trump administration a “Blueprint for Reform” that lays out how "to continue to improve the delivery of an academically rigorous, culturally rich education to Native youth,” Sally Jewell wrote, adding that more than 60 Bureau of Indian Education schools remain in poor physical condition.
“[The] need continues to outpace resources...and underscores the acute need for Congress to provide...adequate resources to serve American Indians and Alaska Natives." Sally Jewell wrote.
Eric Eberhard, Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington School of Law, expressed both surprise and satisfaction that Jewell spent so much space in her 14-page memo addressing the problems afflicting Indian education. "It's the least positive thing in Indian country, but she addressed it head on,” he said. “Unfortunately, in spite of her best efforts, four years was not going to make up for problems dating back to the 1880s."
Sally Jewell concluded, "Without a doubt, I consider upholding trust and treaty obligations with tribal nations to pursue a future of their choosing some of the most significant work I will ever do, and I encourage my successor to continue this important progress."
President-elect Donald Trump has nominated U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Montana) to be Jewell’s successor.