During the challenging presidential campaign of 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden made several very ambitious promises to Indian Country.

In their first hundred days, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are honoring those promises.

We first witnessed it when he made the largest one-time investment in tribal communities in history — to the tune of $31.2 billion dollars — in his American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Twenty billion dollars were appropriated to the Department of the Treasury to allocate to tribal governments to combat COVID-19 and stimulate economic recovery. The remainder was provided to address other basic and urgent needs such as housing, broadband, potable water, and sanitation.

The Biden administration provided much needed resources and directed the agencies to consult with tribes regarding targeted investments and formula allocation methodologies to distribute this funding.

This demonstrated Biden’s respect for tribal sovereignty and self-governance. This gave us a seat at the table and afforded us broad flexibility and the decision-making authority to address our most pressing community needs at the local level.

The president continues to uphold his commitment to Indian Country and the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations with the release of his fiscal year 2022 proposed budget, in which President Biden has included significant increases to tribal programs.

This discretionary request includes $8.5 billion in funding for the Indian Health Service in 2022, which is an increase of $2.2 billion. For the first time, the administration has included advanced appropriations for the Indian Health Service.

President Biden’s 2020 campaign promises and his commitment to Indian Country begin to address the long-standing stark inequities and historically lacking trust and treaty investments experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives. These long standing issues are detailed in the United States Commission on Civil Rights reports titled “Broken Promises (2018)” and “A Quiet Crisis (2003).”

Past reports and analyses by federal government agencies and tribes reveal that American Indian and Alaska Native people lag far behind mainstream America due to inequitable and unequal funding. This inequity results in vast health disparities, poor living conditions and limited or non-existent employment and economic opportunities.

Our past pleas — to address very high unemployment rates, the absence of potable and sanitary water and waste-water systems (particularly in Alaska), dilapidated roads and bridges, serious deficiencies and maintenance required to upgrade our school facilities and transportation, public safety and justice needs, lack of access to the broadband network and the cost-prohibitive connectivity rates in tribal communities — have fallen on deaf ears.

Tribal leaders advocating for meaningful increases in the annual federal budgets fully understand the urgent needs of our communities. Governmental gestures of understanding — combined with responses that indicate other national priorities were more important — have frustrated tribal leaders as we made our cases to various department leaders and agencies, to include the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Yet, now under the Biden-Harris Administration the OMB has held its first consultation session with tribes, opening an important dialogue for the future.

We welcome the Biden/Harris commitment to raise the standards of living throughout all our 574 tribal communities, as we work to reassume true self-governance and self-reliance.

President Biden recognized that the narrative needed to change. Tribes are not a discretionary consideration. The mandatory obligation on the part of the federal government is solidified in our constitution, treaties, executive orders, and countless legal opinions.

And so, it is with great appreciation and hope for the future that we offer our thanks to the Biden-Harris administration for honoring those promises made nation-to-nation.

Tribal leaders are not naive to the notion that our self-reliance goals will be achieved by the Federal government living up to its treaty, statutory and moral obligations alone. But many of us would say, “That is not only what we seek.”

What we seek is a solid economic base that will enable us to generate our own revenue streams and our own tax base. These sources of unrestricted revenue are our true goals.

Indian Country has always wanted to do our part, we just needed America to step up and invest in our communities to enable us to make a difference.

We welcome this commitment and belief by President Biden and Vice President Harris that Indian Country will do its part for America’s future if we are treated with the respect we’ve sought for many generations.

Inclusiveness is what President Biden has been preaching and this budgetary action is reflective of the White House following through on its promises to Indian Country.

Great nations, like great men, should honor their words.

Well done, Mr. President, well done. 

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This essay does not reflect the view of Indian Country Today; voices in our opinion section represent a variety of reader points of view. If you would like to contribute an essay to Indian Country Today, email the opinion editor, Vincent Schilling at opinion@indiancountrytoday.com.

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