WASHINGTON – White House officials chose Columbus Day to announce a first-of-its-kind conference to be held with leaders from all federally recognized tribes. President Barack Obama will host a White House Tribal Nations Conference Nov. 5 from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
“Indian country has been waiting for well over a decade for a meeting of this caliber with the President of the United States,” said Joe A. Garcia, National Congress of American Indians president.
Leaders of all 564 federally recognized tribes will be invited, an announcement said, adding that they will be given the opportunity to interact directly with the president and other top administration officials.
Each federally recognized tribe can send one representative.
“I look forward to hearing directly from the leaders in Indian country about what my administration can do to not only meet their needs, but help improve their lives and the lives of their peoples,” Obama said.
“This conference will serve as part of the ongoing and important consultation process that I value, and further strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship.”
The gathering is intended to be part of the president’s outreach to all American people, according to the White House.
Invitations to tribal leaders were sent via e-mail and fax from the Domestic Policy Council and the Office of Public Engagement starting Oct. 12, according to Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman.
The invitations note that the historic meeting will not be held in the White House, but at the nearby Sidney R. Yates Auditorium of the Department of the Interior.
Inouye said that all the tribal leaders could not fit in the White House.
“Unfortunately, we just don’t have the capacity. It’s not a very big place.”
He said that a timeline, topics to be covered, and any policy announcements were not yet ready to be shared, but they are in the preparation stage.
“I commend President Obama for setting this precedent for his administration’s nation-to-nation working relationship with tribes. We have an ambitious agenda to strengthen economic development and improve tribal government services,” Garcia said.
W. Ron Allen, who serves on the executive board of NCAI and is chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, said the White House would have been a more impressive setting, but believes it’s important to hold the meeting in an environment that will be conducive to constructive dialogue.
BIA director Larry EchoHawk also addressed the logistics of the event. He recalled being in a recent meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other officials when a message came through asking if Interior could host the meeting because of a lack of space at the White House for such a large gathering.
According to EchoHawk, who shared his story during a speech at the NCAI conference in Palm Springs, Calif., Salazar was reminded that the building was under renovation, and it would be impossible to host the meeting.
Salazar asked who was in charge of the renovation and excused himself from the meeting, saying he’d be right back. Ten minutes later he returned and announced, “We’re holding the meeting.”
Also at the NCAI meeting, Allen emphasized that the tribal leaders did not want the conference to be a listening session, but rather an active conversation in which the nations presented their issues clearly.
“We do not want this to be a photo op.”
He said many NCAI members expect the president to commit to his campaign promises to advance self-determination, self-governance and self-reliance for all 564 American Indian and Alaska Native nations.
“Tribal leaders are very satisfied that President Obama is fulfilling his promise to meet with tribal leaders on a regular basis during his term in office,” Garcia said.
“We are hopeful that he will reaffirm and strengthen his administration’s commitment to the ‘government-to-government’ relationship including clear instruction to all departments and agencies under his executive authority,” Allen said.
Jackie Johnson Pata, NCAI executive director, suggested tribal nations be prepared to speak in a unified voice and with a clear message. She presented a few broad priority areas including sovereignty, tribal-federal relations, self-determination; consultation; and the need for the federal government to honor trust responsibilities.
Pata said tribal nations are looking to develop parity with other entities, mainly states, on major policy initiatives.
In an effort to allow more tribal leaders and members to view the historic event, the Department of Interior is working with MyTribeTV, an Indian-owned business in Seattle, Wash., to provide online coverage of the conference.
“We are very excited to help showcase this important event to Indian country,” said Gaard Swanson, a co-owner of the company.
He noted that all or part of the event will be streamed at tribalsummit.mytribetv.com.
Obama had promised during his campaign that he would hold yearly tribal conferences.
Planning for the event was based partially on White House talks with tribal leaders who were invited to attend two informal listening sessions with administration officials Aug. 31.
After that meeting, tribal leaders who attended said they spoke about sovereignty, taxation, land claims and other issues.
Tribal leaders also expressed a need for better communication from the administration.
Gale Courey Toensing contributed from Palm Springs, Calif.