The National Congress of American Indians has closed out its virtual executive council winter session this week.
Typically tribal leaders, Native advocates and attendees network in the Capitol Hilton lobby or at the coffee station in Washington, D.C., and federal officials speak to a crowded room.
Even in a virtual world, the legislative event still brought in a robust parade of congressional members and officials from various departments and a new administration to share their big ideas and plans for Indian Country.
Here are some highlights from the week.
Special message from President Joe Biden
Tribal leaders applauded President Joe Biden for actions and executive orders that took place early in his administration.
While it has been noted much work remains, Biden’s executive order on tribal consultation, the nomination of New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblos, for interior secretary and numerous other Native appointments have been seen as positive signs that Indian Country will have a voice and seat at the table during his four-year term.
Near the end of the first general assembly of the conference, a short video message was played from Biden.
In the short address, the president thanked Indian Country for its contributions to support the well-being of the nation and their respective communities.
He recognized the past year has been challenging for tribes across the country, saying COVID-19 has taken a toll on Indian Country with “disproportionate force” and a climate crisis that continues to threaten communities and sacred ways of life.
“From health disparities to gaps in economic opportunity, we see how Indigenous communities still live, still live, in the shadow of a long and painful legacy of broken promises,” Biden said. “As president, I promise you, I'm committed to working with you to write a new and better chapter in the history of our nation-to-nation relationship.”
Along with the previously mentioned accomplishments, Biden said he is committed to working with tribes to deliver immediate economic recovery in the American Rescue Plan and will continue to work with tribes to ensure there is adequate COVID-19 testing and vaccines available for Indian Country.
“Above all, we’re going to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities to tribal nations,” the president said. “Tribal nations will always have a seat at the table in my administration. “
By coming together, Biden sees a brighter future for Indian Country.
“There is much, much we have to do but I am confident we can make progress,” Biden said. “I know we can write a new and better chapter between our nations by working together.”
Throughout the first half of the week, much of the conversations in between speakers centered around the Senate confirmation hearing of Haaland.
On Tuesday morning, NCAI held a virtual watch party that reportedly had around 500 people taking part.
After the conclusion of her hearing Wednesday, West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced that he would support her nomination. The announcement almost ensures her confirmation will at least be moved out of committee and to the Senate floor for a full vote.
(Related: She has his vote)
Although tribal leaders in the general assembly made it clear that they will not stop working the phones and writing letters to help Haaland get across the finish line. Additionally, nearly every congressional member was asked about Haaland or mentioned her nomination during their remarks.
During a conversation with the new chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Sen. Brian Schatz and Sen. Lisa Murkowski respectively, were both asked which way they intended to vote.
Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, had not previously disclosed how he intended to vote but did so Tuesday.
“I do intend to support a Congresswoman Haaland as the Secretary of Interior. I think she is immensely qualified and we've had a couple of very good constructive conversations,” Schatz said. “I think she's got the skill set and the background to balance all the needs, the DOI is a sprawling department. And you have to be able to strike balances among different constituencies, and I have no doubt that she'll be capable to do that.”
Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, was a little less forthcoming in her answer. Being the seasoned politician she is, her answer didn’t indicate how she’d end up voting one way or the other.
“I think my takeaway from today's (Tuesday) responses was that she is committed to really trying to find that bipartisan effort to do the reach out, to understand,” Murkwoski said. “As the chairman has pointed out, the Department of Interior is not only sprawling, but it is quite significant.”
As the nomination process continues to move forward, stay tuned to Indian Country Today for the latest news regarding Haaland’s historic appointment.
Congressional leaders spoke on COVID-19, climate change
As Indian Country well knows, there is no shortage of issues that need to be addressed regarding tribal communities. Conferences hosted by NCAI allow tribal leaders to directly engage with a number of congressional members to discuss these issues and how to find solutions to them.
On Tuesday, Democratic leaders from the House and Senate both took time out of their busy schedules to appear virtually before the conference.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said one of the main roles of his position is to get things done.
“The Senate will no longer be a legislative graveyard and we will be aggressive in confirming nominations,” Schumer said.
With regards to legislation, Schumer touched on a number of different topics. Ranging from COVID-19 relief to climate change to violence on Native land.
Schumer said he is proud of the amount of money for Indian Country that was able to be included in the upcoming and newest relief bill.
“Every time we consider giving money to communities, we must have tribal nations, Indian Country at the top of the list,” he said. “That is something I promised before I became Majority Leader, got done in the first bill and now we're doing it even bigger in this bill and I will continue to work with you on that.”
As it relates to the disbursement of funds to tribes, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians Chairman Mark Macarro said the process under the CARES Act was a “complete disaster.” He asked Pelosi and Schumer to write a letter to the treasury department and interior department speaking to the congressional intent for funds for tribes in the upcoming bill.
Due to the reconciliation process, specific language as to how the money will be distributed was prevented from being placed within the language of the bill.
Pelosi committed to writing the letter.
“We expect the Department of Treasury to respect that,” Pelosi said. “We talk about self-certification, we talk about economic factors, as you said, beyond just population. We talk about inclusion, we talk about parity, we talk about trust responsibility in everything that we do.”
Climate change has long been an issue facing Native communities. Schumer noted that tribal communities are often among the first to feel the effects of climate change and need to be a focus on any legislation pertaining to it.
“So many people hurting because of the changing environment,” Schumer said. “So our goal is to ensure not only that tribes are included throughout any relief package, but to focus on long term economic stability in native communities.”
Similarly, Pelosi said the issue was there long before the pandemic and tribes have much to offer to combat the climate crisis.
“We owe you so much and we learned so much from you,” Pelosi said. “When the planet is at stake, who better than Indian Country to lead the way.”
Natives in the administration
While Haaland may be the highest profile Native individual working in the administration, she is far from the only one.
Libby Washburn, Chickasaw, was appointed as special assistant to the president for Native American affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council. She said there has been more than 20 Native appointments across the Biden administration.
Most recently, Bryan Newland, Bay Mills Indian Community, has accepted the role of principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the interior.
Also, Jaime Pinkham, Nez Perce, was appointed as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works. The role is one of two that oversees the Army Corps of Engineers civil works program.
Washburn is not the only Native in the White House, either. Paawee Rivera, Pojoaque Pueblo, serves as a senior advisor for intergovernmental affairs and director of tribal affairs at the White House.
Representation does not stop there.
Wahleah Johns, Diné, is the senior advisor for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs and is undergoing the process to become director.
In the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, serves as director of the office of tribal relations.
Thompson, Johns, Rivera and Washburn spoke before the conference. All made it clear they are in their respective positions to do the best work they can on behalf of Indian Country and that they will seek tribal leader input frequently.
“This is a moment,” Thompson said. “Take advantage of the next four years.”
Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
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