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Washburn Meets With Ray Halbritter, ICTMN During UN Indigenous Conference

Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, met with Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative and CEO, and ICTMN editorial staff in New York City on Monday to discuss land and water rights as well as the convoluted process by which tribes receive federal recognition.

“We’re trying to make a more efficient process,” Washburn said.

During the meeting, Washburn sat with the staff for a lengthy Q&A, which will appear on as a series in the weeks ahead. 

Washburn was also invited to the UN World Indigenous Conference in New York during the UN General Assembly where President Barack Obama and world leaders also convened.

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President Obama appointed Washburn, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, to the position in the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2012. Washburn said his experience thus far has been of both reward and frustration; and mentioned that poverty and substance abuse issues on reservations are most troubling to him. “I’m a big believer in tribal self-governance,” Washburn said. “Leadership in these communities is [how] we’re going to solve these problems.”

According to the U.S. Census, in 2011, nearly a quarter of the 1.6-percent of Native Americans were living in poverty. In June, the Pew Research Center reported that one in four Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty.

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That same month, Obama visited the Sicangu Lakota on the Standing Rock reservation in Cannonball, North Dakota, making Obama the fourth president to visit an Indian reservation.

Previous to his trip to Standing Rock, Obama was “intellectually committed” to Indian country, Washburn said. But, following his sojourn to a reservation, Obama is also "emotionally committed" to the issues plaguing Native Americans.

Cliff Matias

Clockwise from left: Valerie Taliman, ICTMN; Kevin Washburn; Ray Halbritter; Ray Cook, ICTMN; Simon Moya-Smith, ICTMN; and Gale Toensing, ICTMN

In an opinion editorial to ICTMN, Obama referred to the deplorable conditions on reservations as a “moral call to action.”

“As long as I have the honor of serving as President, I’ll do everything I can to answer that call,” he wrote.

Washburn said he endeavors to build and maintain a constructive relationship with Native American sovereign nations and, he hopes to “restore the trust” with all tribal nations.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.