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Sec. Jewell and Obama Administration Racing Clock on Indigenous Issues

Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell urged leaders at NCAI’s mid-year convention in Spokane in June to keep the pressure on the United States.
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Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, who in her three-and-a-half years in office has visited tribes across the U.S., urged leaders at the National Congress of American Indian’s mid-year convention in Spokane in June to keep the pressure on the United States—especially as the Obama Administration enters its final months.

At the top levels of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Jewell said staff is working to clarify and nail down Indian policies and guidelines from Indian child welfare to water settlements so that the Administration’s progressive policies and cooperative approach to tribes will continue.

“Unless a future president intentionally undoes this, and I know that you would make that very uncomfortable, President Obama’s executive orders and tribal nation meetings will continue,” she said.

Jewell was president and CEO of REI, the Seattle-based outdoor retailer, when Obama tapped her in 2013 to become just the second woman to lead Interior. A banker by trade, Jewell now oversees the nation’s lands and natural resources. She has visited 40 tribes, and became deeply engaged in the reform of the Bureau of Indian Education, leading her to pledge to NCAI participants that she would continue her advocacy for Native youth—even when she leaves office.

“Secretary Jewell has shown a commitment to Native issues, specifically Native youth,” NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said. “It is heartening to know that she has made a commitment to be a continued voice for our children, families and future generations.”

For tribes, the progress of this administration has to be balanced against the enormity of history, as NCAI said in a statement responding to Jewell’s speech which covered the breadth of Obama’s approach to Indian country. It wasn’t lost on the Secretary how much “unfinished business” remains to be done, as she told tribal leaders how critical it is to “hear your voices on the Hill.”

Soon after she came to D.C., President Obama had her chair the cabinet level White House Council on Native Americans. Jewell still goes to those meetings, where senior agency staff collaborate on the federal relationship with tribes. While the council was founded in the Clinton Administration, it wasn’t elevated until President Obama required every federal department and agency to consult with tribes. Now, senior BIA staff say the council gets stuff done.

“My boss is all in,” Jewell said of Obama. “Our North Star is self determination and self governance in upholding our promises to you.”

For Jewell the focus on tribes has taken on a bigger role, she tracks partnerships such as between National Institute of Science researchers studying climate and tribal scientists and culture bearers are key in the future, in what she called “this time of climate change.” Of particular importance, she said, is water across the West as the climate warms the water threatening Northwest salmon runs and producing extreme heat stresses the Southwest.

Referencing Pope Francis’s recent encyclical “Laudato Si’ about the environment and the critical role of indigenous people in protecting the earth, she observed, “There is an awakening around the world to the importance of indigenous knowledge especially as we face climate change.”

Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, has watched up close the work of the Obama Administration, its annual meeting with tribal leaders, and its two Interior secretaries: Ken Salazar who was a big early mover in implementing the Cobell Settlement, and now Jewell under whose watch the BIE has empowered its director to better serve Indian schools whether they are Bureau or tribally run. The federal dollars to repair and replace Indian schools has started flowing—even if only the 2004 project list.

Cladoosby said, “Secretary Jewell shows that when people visit Indian country and get to know our work, they see that our communities, tribes, and youth are worth investing in.”

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Larry Roberts, Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, who will serve acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs through the end of the Administration, told tribal leaders at NCAI, “The remaining days of the Administration are moving full speed ahead. …We need to focus on what you need so we key them up before the next Administration.”

The Interior Department is working with the Justice Department to settle long standing tribal claims. To date the Administration has settled more than 90 tribal water rights cases, and Jewell said more are in the works.

The Interior Department is also moving toward a goal of approving applications to bring 500,000 acres nationwide into tribal trust status. So far approved 416,000 acres of lands into trust status, and through the buyback program has brought another 1.5 million acres into tribal ownership with more than $700,000 in offers being made to tribal members. Jewell told NCAI, “Land makes your nation’s whole again.”

Still, she noted, ““I know our work is not going to be done when the Cobell money runs out.”

NCAI in a statement said that while the restoration of so many acres of land into trust status under the Obama Administration is “enormously important,” on balance only 8 percent of the 90 million acres of tribal land taken through the allotment process has been restored through trust status. “Still today, many tribes have no land base and many tribes have insufficient lands to support housing and self-government.”

While tribes have been “very happy” with the Administration, NCAI shared a long list of recent successes for the history books, including joining many legal cases on behalf of tribes, such as Nebraska v. Parker which resulted in a ruling that protects reservation boundaries from diminishment; the first major U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decision to protect treaty rights in the Cherry Point, Washington, decision, progress on Land to Trust for tribes in Alaska, and the $2 billion Keepseagle Settlement against the USDA discrimination against farmers.

More needs to be done before the clock runs out on the Obama Administration, including Indian trader regulations to protect tribal lands and Indian people from dual taxation on natural resources, and filing litigation to protect the in-stream water flow necessary for treaty fishing rights.

“Restoring tribal homelands that will have a lasting impact for future generations,” Roberts told tribal leaders. “Once we achieve that half a million acres of land into trust, we know you will work to make this a priority in the next administration.”

Jewell’s focus on the next generation of Indian leaders, today’s Native children coincided with the release at NCAI of new final Indian Child Welfare Act regulations governing state courts and agency child custody proceedings.

“The new regulations will keep families together,” explained Cladoosby. “Clear and consistent rules for child placement also will result in faster and more reliable placement decision for all affected families, creating better outcomes for our children.”

As Secretary Jewell spoke about her interactions with Native youth the audience in Spokane could hear the emotion in her voice.

“I have seen her with the youth in small settings or in roundtable discussions and it is easy to see why she will think that those times were the highlight of her administration – but it is clear that this is one area that she believes the work is not complete,” said Jackie Pata, NCAI Executive Director.

“This administration did not only invite tribal leaders to the policy table more than any other administration,” Pata said. “They also recognized the value of lifting up and supporting the future leaders of Indian country—Native youth.”