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Chris Aadland
Indian Country Today and Underscore.news

Ahead of a tribal leadership summit next week, White House officials say Indian Country should be prepared for the Biden administration to announce a number of “exciting” actions that, in some cases, tribal nations have wanted for months or years.

Two White House officials – PaaWee Rivera and Libby Washburn – didn’t disclose any other details when speaking with Indian Country Today this week, but said the many of the policy announcements, through moves like executive action, would be related to longstanding policy desires from tribes, as well as the Biden administration fulfilling campaign and transition promises to Indian Country.

“I don't want to ruin the surprise, so I'm not going to say exactly what's coming,” Washburn, special assistant to the president for Native American Affairs under the White House Domestic Policy Council, said Monday. “But you will see an array of things, announcements internally, agency-to-agency and lots of interagency announcements as well.”

The White House Tribal Nations Summit will take place virtually on Nov. 15 and 16 for the first time since 2016. President Donald Trump reestablished the White House Council on Native American Affairs but did not host the summit, then called a conference. The White House said in the spring that it was planning to re-establish the event.

The meeting, an opportunity for tribal leaders to meet with administration officials and communicate their priorities, was renamed from a conference to a summit to recognize the nation-to-nation relationship tribes have with the federal government, Washburn, Chickasaw Nation, said.

While Rivera and Washburn declined to disclose more details of the policy announcement, Biden laid out a broad set of policy goals for Indian Country during his campaign, like increasing access to healthcare, improving tribal consultation, ensuring access to clean drinking water on tribal lands, addressing the chronic underfunding of federal obligations to tribal nations and tackling the missing and murdered Indigenous person crisis. Re-establishing the tribal leaders’ meeting was one of those goals.

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The summit will also give tribal leaders an opportunity to share with the Biden administration what they believe it should prioritize when it comes to Indian Country policy and won’t just be White House officials “talking at” tribal leaders and highlighting policy achievements, Washburn said. The event will include plenty of dialogue and a listening session that will help the administration set policy goals, she added.

PaaWee Rivera, Pojoaque Pueblo, and Libby Washburn, Chickasaw, stand outside of the White House in Washington, D.C. Rivera is a senior advisor for intergovernmental affairs and director of tribal affairs at the White House. Washburn serves as a special assistant to the president on Native Affairs in the White House domestic policy council. Both serve in the Biden-Harris administration. (Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Indian Country Today)

“We've worked very hard to fulfill all of the promises that were made during the campaign. And now we want to hear what the tribes want in this second year,” Washburn said. “So it'll be an opportunity to figure that out and for the tribal leaders to give us their input on what they're wanting us to focus on.”

Rivera, a citizen of the Pueblo of Pojoaque and senior advisor in the White House’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, said he expects topics like COVID-19’s impact on tribal communities, climate change and the environment to be popular topics of discussion. He also said infrastructure – especially given Congress passing a $1 trillion infrastructure package with $11 billion reserved for tribes on Nov. 5 – is likely to come up frequently.

The summit will also come amid Native American Heritage Month. For Rivera, the virtual gathering, along with a tribal youth forum later the same week, will be one of the best ways the administration can recognize the month.

The White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Vincent Schilling)

“I think next week's tribal nations Summit is probably the most significant way that we can honor Native American Heritage Month, really honoring the nation to nation relationship,” he said. “Having the focus of the entire administration really dive deep on the issues that tribes care about, and giving the opportunity for tribal leaders to come together and then share those priorities with us … those are the ways that we’re concretely honoring Native American Heritage Month.”

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This story is co-published by Underscore.news and Indian Country Today, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest. Funding is provided in part by Meyer Memorial Trust.