WASHINGTON – More than 400 members of federally recognized tribes gathered today at the Department of the Interior at a Tribal Nations Conference hosted by President Barack Obama, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Cabinet Members.
Secretary Salazar’s opening remarks at the conference, as prepared for delivery, are below:
“Welcome to the Tribal Nations Conference.
Thank you all for being here. And thanks to everyone who has worked so hard to bring this conference together.
We are here today because President Barack Obama respects the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations, and believes that the federal government must honor its commitments to American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
We recognize that the federal government’s history with Indian nations is long and troubled. We live with a legacy of injustice.
But today, we also live in a moment of great opportunity.
In his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama promised that his administration would uphold not just a government-to-government relationship with tribes, but a nation-to-nation relationship.
American Indians and Alaska Natives must have a strong voice in shaping the policies that affect their communities. That is why President Obama nominated Larry EchoHawk to be assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. That is why he appointed Hilary Tompkins as solicitor general for the Department of the Interior. It is why he appointed Kimberly Teehee and Jodi Gillette to serve in the White House. And it’s why the president himself is here today, hosting a Tribal Nations Conference.
President Obama believes that consultation with tribal nations must be meaningful; it can’t just be lip service. Consultation is about engagement and discussion. And it should lead to solutions that help build safer, stronger, healthier, and more prosperous Indian communities.
In the first nine months of this Administration, we have been working to turn the page on the federal government’s pattern of neglect. In its place, we are building a strategy for empowerment – a strategy that helps Indian nations build a future of their choosing.
The president’s economic recovery plan laid the foundation for our agenda. Thanks to the $3 billion investment we are making in Indian country through the Recovery Act, men and women are now at work on tribal roads, schools, and water infrastructure projects.
On the Navajo reservation, crews are turning ground on the Fruitland Reach of the Navajo Nation Municipal Pipeline. When the job’s done, the Navajo Nation will have a new, 29 mile water pipeline that will stretch from Farmington to Shiprock.
On the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota – in the poorest county in America – Recovery dollars are building a new K-12 school; 432 students, including 160 residential students, will find new hope and new opportunities in their new classrooms.
And on the Hoopa Valley reservation in California, a tribally-owned company is building energy efficient homes under the Housing Improvement Program. The company is adding jobs and putting people back to work.
But the Recovery Act is only the start of our agenda.
Today, we’ll talk about the efforts we are undertaking – in conjunction with the Department of Justice – to improve public safety on tribal lands.
We’ll talk about what we must do to help tribes lead the clean energy revolution. Tribal lands hold some of the continent’s highest solar and wind potential. We need to partner with tribes to connect their resources with a national electronic superhighway.
We’ll also talk today about health care and education. Only 50 percent of Native American students are graduating from high school. Fewer attend college.
And the health care crisis sweeping America is even more acute on tribal lands. Life expectancy is shorter. Rates of chronic illness are higher. And health care services on reservations are often difficult to reach.
These realities and disparities are unacceptable. We must – and are – tackling them head-on.
Finally, throughout the day, we’ll talk about what we are doing to uphold our trust responsibilities to Indian Nations.
Through treaties, court decisions, federal law, and the Constitution, the U.S. has sacred pacts with Indian nations that we must honor. We must follow the letter of the law and fulfill the spirit of those commitments.
That’s why we have taken steps to improve transparency in disbursements to Indian beneficiaries and tribal governments.
It is why we must partner together to try to resolve long-standing conflicts, from litigation regarding the United States’ trust obligations to much-needed water rights settlements.
It is why we are undertaking a thorough review of our federal subsistence policy.
And it is why we are working with Congress to ensure that the federal government is able to take land into trust.
We have a lot to discuss today. Many policy options; many hard choices.
But all of these questions boil down to a more fundamental one. And that is: what is the future that American Indian and Alaska Native nations wish to build for themselves?
Because at this moment, with this president, you have an unprecedented opportunity to decide the future of your choosing.
Self-determination, sovereignty, self-government, empowerment, and self-reliance are not abstract concepts; they are the tools that enable Indian country to shape its own destiny.
Our role, as an administration, is to help you fulfill your vision for your nations; to help your communities achieve their promise; to help your cultures flourish.
A somber legacy still haunts what we do. We can neither escape it nor erase it. Rather, our memory must fuel our commitment to finally do right by the sacred compacts between our nations.
We must tell America’s entire story. We must deepen our understanding. And we must honor Indian nations by helping you build a strong foundation for the security, prosperity, and fulfillment of your peoples’ dreams.
Thank you all for being here today. We have a great day ahead.