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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The two-day Tribal Nations Summit hosted by the White House has ended, and the reaction from tribal leaders is varied.

For the first time since 2016, tribal leaders from the 574 federally recognized tribes were invited to the virtual summit from Nov. 15 to Nov. 16. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the event’s original plan to be held in Washington D.C.

Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona talked about his experience speaking on the policy panel about climate change impacts and solutions.

Morgan Rodman, executive director of White House Council on Native American Affairs, Gina McCarthy, White House climate advisor, and Brenda Mallory, council on environmental quality chair were present.

He commented on how droughts, water rights, and their water settlement are important issues to the tribe.

“We had an opportunity to talk about Gila River’s perspective as being a key partner with the federal government on issues having to do with water and how climate change is intimately linked with that,” he said.

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He added that he liked the diversity of the panel, with tribes ranging from Alaska to the Northwest.

Although he wished it would have been in person, he stated that the virtual platform enabled broader participation.

“It allowed for a tribal-federal discussion that highlighted those key programs -- both the federal and tribal level,” he said.

Lewis mentioned how the forums are also a way for tribes to announce projects and innovations like how Gila River is managing a pilot project that will put solar panels on canal systems to generate electricity and guard against water evaporation.

He said he was asked to participate in the panel due to the tribe’s close working relationship with the Biden administration about climate change.

On the other hand, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier sharply criticized the format of the two-day summit.

“I waited two days for the opportunity to inform someone about what is actually happening here on the Cheyenne River reservation to no avail,” he said in a statement, adding, “This president and his administration are leaving my people in the hallways and parking lots while they fill computer meeting screens with panels of people that are not a part of our healthcare system where we live.”

In this Feb. 28, 2017, file photo, Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe leaves federal court in Washington. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem appeared headed Monday, May 11, 2020, for a legal confrontation with two Native American Indian tribes over highway checkpoints intended to keep the coronavirus away from their reservations. Both tribes said over the weekend the checkpoints would stand on their reservations. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Frazier said in a statement. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen File)

Lewis acknowledged the difficulty of inviting hundreds of tribes, the limits of having it virtual and the COVID-19 precautions that the White House made.

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“Hopefully, it can be the beginning of further robust engagement of all tribal leaders across Indian Country with this administration,” he said.

He encouraged there should also be regional or state engagements from the administration.

Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said, in a written response, that he had a good experience and commended President Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the Indian Affairs team for their efforts.

He said the virtual format was accessible because the National Indian Gaming Association mid-year conference was occurring at the same time that allowed other tribal leaders to attend both.

“That said, the Zoom environment will never fully replace the benefits of being present or the shared comradery,” he said.

Macarro was also invited to speak on his panel of economic and workforce development and said it may be because of his years of consultations and engagement with various agencies regarding the topic. And he recently was elected as the National Congress of American Indians first vice president. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called the summit evidence that the Biden administration is living up to its promises to Native Americans.

“This is the first time in my lifetime that I see the Navajo Nation having a seat at the table at the White House, with Cabinet members of the administration,” he said Tuesday. “And they are listening, and the commitment is there in support of the Navajo people, and we appreciate that from this administration.”

Jodi Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux, special assistant to the president during the Obama administration, was one of the people responsible for the summit’s creation.

“It was something that was a very rare occurrence for people to be meeting with high-levels of the federal government in any capacity. It was a rarity,” she said in Indian Country Today’s newscast.

Archambault additionally served on the White House Domestic Policy Council as a senior advisor, was the deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior and before that as the White House associate director of intergovernmental affairs.

She mentioned how the summit allows presidents to take full attention on issues concerning Indian Country and how it seems over time each democratic presidency is advancing their commitment to tribes, and republicans should take notice.

“I hope that they take this as a message that they’re going to have to do a lot better than what they’re doing when they’re in office,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to the story 

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