WASHINGTON – It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who has visited several tribal leaders and announced major policies affecting Indian country.
In terms of actual dollars, Salazar officially announced April 25 a total of $500 million for Indian country economic recovery projects.
The money comes from the $787 billion stimulus package President Barack Obama signed into law in February. It will provide funding for a variety of projects, including school and housing construction, road and bridge improvements, and workforce development projects for federally-recognized tribes nationwide.
The department’s Indian Affairs office will also offer federally guaranteed loans for American Indian-owned businesses.
“These investments will stimulate job creation by bringing much-needed attention to repairing and rebuilding Indian country’s fraying infrastructure and by providing capital to American Indian-owned businesses,” Salazar said.
“We can bridge the gap between making short-term repairs to creating lasting improvements in tribal communities by utilizing green design and renewable energy technology for new and existing homes and schools, correcting health and safety deficiencies in tribal detention facilities, training tribal youth and unskilled workers for lifetime employment, and expanding economic opportunity through loans to Indian businesses.”
Salazar made the announcement from the campus of the United Tribes Technical College, where he met with several tribal leaders, including David Gipp, president of the tribal college and officials from the state’s five federally recognized tribes.
Gipp later assessed that Salazar seems to relate to what tribes need, while having connections in Congress that can help support a strong Indian country agenda. He noted, too, that the Obama administration has already restored funding for the tribal college as part of its executive budget.
While visiting the North Dakota region, Salazar visited the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation to tour the department’s “one-stop shop” that streamlines oil and gas leasing for the Three Affiliated Tribes and individual landowners.
The Three Affiliated Tribes are expected to receive stimulus funds to build 10 homes using renewable energy technology through the BIAs’ Housing Improvement Program and to provide green employment training for tribal youth and adults.
Overall, up to $19.6 million of Recovery Act funding will be given to North Dakota tribes. Department officials said that the public will be able to follow the progress of each tribal project at www.interior.gov/recovery.
While at UTTC, Salazar met with tribal leaders to discuss matters concerning Indian country law enforcement and other perennial problems facing tribes.
Gipp said he was happy that Salazar is making early efforts in his term to visit Native leaders.
“I appreciated the fact that he was willing to sit down and listen to the issues that the tribes put forth. It was unfortunately not a very long meeting – we could have used the better part of a day, at least – but substantial topics were raised.”
Gipp added that the open communication was quite a contrast to the department’s actions during the eight years of the Bush administration.
“It’s a new day, as far as I’m concerned.”
Earlier in April, Salazar held a special meeting with Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. They discussed water, education, road and job training initiatives aimed at improving the quality of life for residents of the Navajo Nation, other American Indian communities and residents of New Mexico.
Millions of dollars in stimulus funds have already been announced to go to the Navajo Nation.
“The federal government has an obligation to work directly with federally recognized tribal nations on a government-to-government basis,” Salazar said April 17.
“Today’s meeting with Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley is just the first of many meetings to come.”
George Hardeen, a spokesman for the tribe, said they welcomed Salazar’s interest and hope to keep the lines of communication strong.
A main point of discussion between Salazar and Shirley focused on the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, authorized in the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, recently signed into law by Obama.
The pipeline is expected to provide clean and reliable water to a quarter of a million people in the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, the city of Gallup, N.M. and the Jicarilla Apache Nation.
Salazar told Shirley that his department is committed to playing a major role in constructing the project.
As he did with tribal leaders during his North Dakota visit, Salazar also discussed the importance of improving law enforcement and justice services, Indian education and promoting Indian energy development.
Officials with the office of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs chairman has played a role in urging Salazar to do direct tribal outreach.
Dorgan was on hand for Salazar’s UTTC meeting, during which he raised the topic of treaties between the U.S. government and tribes.
“We made promises,” Dorgan said. “We signed treaties. We said we’ll deal with health care, housing, education, law enforcement. We have not kept those promises.”