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Pauly Denetclaw
Special to Indian Country Today

It’s been roughly one year since President Joe Biden was sworn into office. His approval ratings hit a historic low at 39 percent in January, inflation in 2021 rose to the highest it’s been in four decades, and the COVID-19 omicron variant has surged, causing another wave of hospitalizations across the country.

The Biden administration continues to deal with push back from Republicans and a few conservative Democrats for his two biggest legislative priorities, the Build Back Better Act and the federal voting rights bill.

In a Jan. 19 speech, Biden defended his first year in office.

“We went from 2 million people being vaccinated, at the moment I was sworn in, to 210 million Americans being fully vaccinated today,” Biden said. “We created 6 million new jobs — more jobs in one year than at any time before. Unemployment dropped — the unemployment rate dropped to 3.9 percent. Child poverty dropped by nearly 40 percent — the biggest drop ever in American history. New business applications grew by 30 percent — the biggest increase ever. And for the first time in a long time, this country’s working people actually got a raise.”


This is the larger context for how the Biden administration is doing, but it looks a little different for Indigenous communities.

“I don't think this is where the Biden administration wanted to be one year in and I'll say that for mainstream America,” said Holly Cook Macarro, Red Lake Nation, a partner at Spirit Rock Consulting and a regular political contributor on ICT Newscast with Aliyah Chavez.

“I think for Indian Country, a one-year review is a different picture.”

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Joe Biden's first year by the numbers
Joe Biden restores sacred Bears Ears
Deb Haaland highlights Indigenous progress

The Biden administration made a lot of promises to Indigenous people during his campaign.

In the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations, his administration said it would strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship, provide "reliable, affordable, quality health care and address health disparities, restore tribal lands, address climate change, and safeguard natural and cultural resources. The plan also pledged to ensure Native communities are safer and address violence against Native women, children, and the elderly; expand economic opportunity and community development in Native communities, invest in education and youth engagement, meet obligations to and recognize Natve veterans; and ensure Native people "can exercise their right to vote.”

In some of these areas the administration has delivered; in others, it has not.

The biggest highlight from the Biden administration was the swearing in of former U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, as the secretary for the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees Indigenous affairs for the federal government. As a part of the president’s cabinet, Haaland brought in a slew of changes, including a special unit under the Bureau of Indian Affairs to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate boarding schools that have ceased operation.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, during a Tribal Nations Summit in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Cameron Smith)

Charles Sams III, Cayuse and Walla Walla, was approved by the Senate to lead the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Interior. Sams is the first Indigenous person to hold that position.

Another appointee was former Arizona state lawmaker Arlando Teller to serve as the deputy assistant secretary for tribal affairs for the U.S. Department of Transportation, an important part of the administration’s transportation team. Heather Dawn Thompson, Cheyenne River Sioux, was named director of the Office of Tribal Relations for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to improve nation-to-nation relationships.

The Biden administration has made strides in the appointment of Indigenous people. Two percent of those appointed identify as American Indian or Alaskan Native. As for investments, the Biden administration has advocated for funding to address the needs in Indigenous communities.

“We have seen right out of the gate when President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which contains the largest single federal investment in Indian Country, over $30 billion,” Cook Macarro said. “We didn't have that kind of support from the Trump administration in the negotiations for the CARES Act, which contained $8 billion for tribes. So having that support from the administration, and in partnership with our other champions on the hill, that resulted in that historic investment.”

In November, Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill that included an additional $13 billion in direct investment for Native communities with the opportunity to apply for billions more through grants and other funding sources. In the fiscal year 2022 budget presented to Congress, Biden requested that an additional $2.2 billion be allocated for Indian Health Service, pushing the budget to $8.5 billion, and for advanced appropriation of $9 billion for fiscal year 2023.

The “FY 2022 Tribal Budget Formulation Workgroup Recommendations,” released by the National Indian Health Board, stated that the Biden administration, at a minimum, should recommend a $12.759-billion budget for Indian Health Service. To be fully funded, the agency would need $48 billion. While Biden’s $8.5 billion recommendation does increase the budget by 20 percent, it would need an additional $40 billion to fulfill trust and treaty obligations made with Indigenous nations.

The advanced appropriation bill for Indian Health Service was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, a New Mexico Democrat, on Oct. 7 and a related bill was introduced in the house by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a Minnesota Democrat, on Oct. 12. There has yet to be any other action on the bills.

Another pressing issue is the appointment of federal judges who understand federal Indian law. As the Supreme Court gears up to hear Haaland v. Brakeen, a case that is challenging the Indian Child Welfare Act, the need for judges who understand federal Indian law becomes ever more important. The Supreme Court has also agreed to review a case challenging tribal sovereignty and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in Ysleta Del Sur v. Texas.

“We have two nominations to the federal bench, one is confirmed, one is nominated, and I know others are an active consideration as well,” Cook Macarro said.

Laura King, Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was the 15th of 53 Biden nominations to be confirmed as a federal judge. She is one of four Indigenous judges in the country, and the first Indigenous person to be a federal judge in Washington state. In 232 years of federal judiciary history, King is only the sixth Indigenous person to sit on the federal bench.

In December, it was announced that Biden intended to nominate Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, Navajo, to be a federal judge in California. If confirmed, Sykes would be the first Indigenous person to serve as federal judge in California.

In October, Biden signed an executive order to restore Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah, after his predecessor slashed the size of the monuments to pave the way for energy development, much to the dismay and outrage of Indigenous communities that have cultural ties to the area.

But his record on climate change has not been as successful, though he created two new cabinet positions in the White House, naming former Sen. John Kerry as Special Envoy for Climate and Gina McCarthy as National Climate Advisor.

“I gave him a ‘C’ or incomplete on climate,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, fellow of New America and the Type Media Center. “The reason I gave him that grade is because he came out of the gate very strong on issues of climate change and the environment... Biden then ran into the meat of his agenda, which was really in the Build Back Better Act, that in the United States Senate ran into issues within his own party, particularly, from Sen. (Joe) Manchin of West Virginia, and Sen. (Krysten) Sinema of Arizona.”

The Build Back Better Act includes $555 billion in incentives for green energy and technology that would be doled out over a decade. The Biden administration hoped this would help cut greenhouse emissions by 50-52 percent by 2030 to fulfill the Paris Agreement, which the U.S. reentered in 2021. The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change.

President Joe Biden hands a pen to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland after signing an executive order to help improve public safety and justice for Native Americans during a Tribal Nations Summit during Native American Heritage Month, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington. With the President from left are first lady Jill Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“As Biden said, just the other day, they're going to try to chop up the Build Back Better Act and pass pieces of it,” NoiseCat said. “It will be interesting to see what combination of climate policies and social policies they can get Democratic senators to vote for.”

The bulk of Biden’s climate change policy depends on getting the act passed and only time will tell if conservative Democrats will vote in line with their party.

“Passing that bill is the number one thing,” NoiseCat said when it comes to climate policy. “I think basically everything hinges on whether or not they can pass that bill.”

It doesn’t end there. A 2021 White House Tribal Nations Summit Report stated, “President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan will invest billions of dollars into Native programs and services, including in child care, preschool, Tribal Colleges and Universities, housing, nutrition, and rural community partnerships. It includes unprecedented support in education and childcare that will make life better for countless Native Americans, containing a strong focus on cradleboard to college for Native American children.”

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Tribal Nations Summit in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Some other notable actions over the last year were Biden’s proclamation of Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, creation of the first Veterans Affairs Tribal Advisory Committee, the first-ever Secretary of the Interior’s Tribal Advisory Committee, reinstatement of the White House Council on Native American Affairs and the hosting of the first White House Tribal Nations Summit since 2016.

On the other hand, the administration has yet to appoint a director for the Indian Health Service, while the ongoing pandemic continues to disproportionately impact Indigenous nations. The agency provides healthcare to more than 2 million Indigenous people. A potential director has yet to be named and the nomination has to be approved by the Senate.

Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline permit the day he took office but has done nothing to stop the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline that would go through Anishinaabe territories in Minnesota and Wisconsin. In October, Indigenous leaders held a sit-in at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office to demand that Biden live up to his campaign promises and consult with Indigenous nations on the issue of extractive industries.

Bineshii Hermes-Roach, citizen of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe, traveled to the Mississippi River Enbridge Line 3  crossing at Solway, Minnesota on Monday,  June 7, 2021, to join water protectors. Bad River is involved with the battle against Enbridge's Line 5. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember, Indian Country Today)

Looking into the future, some real changes needed to be made at the congressional level for Biden to continue fulfilling his campaign promises. The midterm elections will take place Tuesday, Nov. 8.

“It's going to be a tough race for the Democrats to hold the House and without a fully Democratic Congress, I think the path forward for President Biden and his legislative agenda, whatever that may be as we move forward, is going to be even more difficult,” Cook Macarro said.

“The failed relationship management with Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema … needs to be reset and restarted in order to see any real successes with a Biden legislative agenda.”

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