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President Obama Follows Visit With Strong Action Plan for Indian Country

Following President Barack Obama’s visit Friday, the White House announced n plan to strengthen education and economic development in Indian country.

In the wake of Friday’s visit by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, the White House released an action plan to help strengthen and sustain at least two of Obama’s biggest initiatives in Indian country: Education and Economic Development.

Acknowledging the “crisis” in Indian education, including low educational attainment rates of Native high school students and the even lower number of college graduates in Indian country, the departments of Interior and Indian Education released a “Blueprint for Reform,” a comprehensive plan “to redesign the BIE to achieve one overarching goal: for tribes to deliver a world-class education to all students attending BIE schools,” according the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

On Friday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed a secretarial order to start the transformation of the Bureau of Indian Education into a “School Improvement Organization,” authorizing the shift of the BIE into a “resource provider” to tribally controlled schools. In doing so, administration officials say that the department will provide customized technical assistance by developing the schools’ educational leadership skills and delivering resources informed by best practices in student support, instruction, financial management, organizational management, teacher training, recruitment, and retention.

“We are very encouraged by the President’s remarks and his commitment to improving education for Native American youth,” said Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, whose tribe hosted the President and First Lady at Friday’s Flag Day Wacipi Celebration. “We are pleased that the President has demonstrated his dedication to strengthening the Bureau of Indian Education, through additional funding and policy improvements, which we remain hopeful will include the opportunity for tribes to pursue charter schools while utilizing BIE assistance. The tribe looks forward to working with the Administration on this important issue.”

The plan was developed by a “study group” of more than 400 stakeholders in Indian education after a series of tribal consultations around the country earlier this year, which included Lone Man Day School in Oglala, South Dakota; Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma; Muckleshoot School in Auburn, Washington; and Gila River Head Start Building in Sacaton, Arizona.

Additionally, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing on May 21 in which Melvin Monette, President of the National Indian Education Association and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, testified that the current crisis in Indian education was due in part to the federal government’s “inability” to uphold its trust responsibilities and obligations in regards to Native education.

“Just over 50 percent of Native students are graduating high school, compared to nearly 80 percent for the majority population,” Monette testified. “For students attending BIE schools, rates are even lower. According to the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), BIE schools are among the worst performing in the nation. The federal government’s continued inadequacy in directly educating our students hinders our children from developing a strong educational foundation that prepares them for future success.”

Over the weekend, SCIA reacted positively to the forward movement by the administration and the departments to act decisively in responding to the issues in Indian education.

“Chairman Tester is focused on the future of Indian country and our greatest resource – our children,” said Mary Pavel, Staff Director and Chief Counsel for SCIA. “The Committee held a hearing on the state of the BIE recently and heard the concerns of the tribes. We're encouraged by this development and look forward to working closely with the Administration.”

Significantly, the plan also calls for the Department of the Interior to authorize and prioritize right-of-way permits for increased broadband connectivity to support digital learning and high speed Internet access at BIE schools and dormitories, which have lagged far behind their mainstream counterparts in the digital age.

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Other initiatives include waivers to make it easier to implement improvements to BIE schools; paid training for any teacher seeking National Board Certification; support for Native Language Revitalization; listening sessions to improve school climate and cultural sensitivity toward Native students.

In the development of American Indian economies, the administration pointed out that while tribes “have made significant progress in recent decades,” in regards to wage increases, a significant gap remains in tribal communities where unemployment and underemployment can hover around 90 percent and child poverty is more than 15 percentage points higher than the national average at 36 percent.

To combat these numbers, the Obama administration established the White House Council on Native American Affairs in 2013 and has pledged more than $3 billion to support tribal communities in becoming more self-sustaining in the 2015 budget.

On Friday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD also released its annual application for Indian Community Development Block Grants, making $70 million available to improve housing and support economic opportunity in Indian country.

The Administration also announced a plethora of new initiatives to support economic development in Native communities, including a modernized and streamlined process for rights-of-way, including transmission lines and broadband access; trainings for the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH) Act, which helps expedite the long-term leasing necessary for federal Indian trust lands in building businesses and homes on Indian reservations.

“In the past, the federal government has long ignored the need for reform of our tribal lands to economic development in the area of updating leasing regulations,” said Jim Gray, former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation. “But this administration has taken some bold steps in this critical area.”

Gray, who is now principal of Oklahoma-based Gray & Gray Consulting, said that in the post-Cobell era, the economic landscape of the Bureau of Indian Affairs is due for some much-needed attention.

“Areas such as the Bakkan Oil Field, which sits under two tribal reservations in North Dakota is seeing unprecedented oil and gas production,” Gray said. “Therefore, the leasing regulations that manage lease approvals, compliance and enforcement for the billions of barrels of oil currently under development is critical in these times of substantial growth."

Other initiatives include easier access to data and resources necessary for tribal economic development, including the publishing of an Economic Development Resource Guide by the Department of Health and Human Services for Native children and families; and the expansion of the Tribal Economic Development (TED) Bonds, to improve tribal infrastructures by improving access to clean water, or building hotels for tourists.

Additionally, the Indian Health Services and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will announce a new initiative to increase the number of Native veterans hired by each agency. The Small Business Administration will also host a Native Veteran focused Reboot to Business, featuring a Native-specific curriculum.

“Giving our Native veterans technical assistance and training to get in the federal government's contracting arena is part of this administration's overall responsibility to all veterans in our country,” said Gray. “In the wake of the Veteran’s Administration scandal, this administration needs to spend the time and resources to improve upon its responsibility to our veterans.”