WASHINGTON, DC, November 5, 2009 (ENS) – Representatives of 400 federally recognized tribal nations from across the United States gathered at the Department of the Interior today at the invitation of President Barack Obama for a conference the President called a “unique and historic event, the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders in our history.”
President Obama and several of his Cabinet members met with the tribal leaders in the morning to listen and to assure them that the broken promises and condescending attitudes of the past would not be repeated under his administration.
“I promised you we’d host this conference to develop an agenda that works for your communities because I believe Washington can’t – and shouldn’t – dictate a policy agenda for Indian Country,” President Obama said. “Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions. That’s why we’re here today.”
In the presence of the tribal leaders, President Obama signed a memorandum directing every Cabinet agency to give him a detailed plan within 90 days of how they will implement an executive order signed by President Bill Clinton nine years ago that established “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration” between tribal nations and the federal government.
“Over the past nine years, only a few agencies have made an effort to implement that executive order,” said Obama, “and it’s time for that to change. After all, there are challenges we can only solve by working together, and we face a serious set of issues right now.”
Obama listed some of most serious issues facing tribal nations, saying, “Some of your reservations face unemployment rates of up to 80 percent. Roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live in poverty. More than 14 percent of all reservation homes don’t have electricity; and 12 percent don’t have access to a safe water supply. In some reservations as many as 20 people live together just to get by.”
“Without real communication and consultation, we’re stuck year after year with policies that don’t work on issues specific to you and on broader issues that affect all of us,” said Obama. “And you deserve to have a voice in both.”
In the question and answer session that followed the signing of the memorandum, many tribal leaders brought environmental and land rights issues to the President’s attention.
Bill Martin, president of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, spoke as a representative of all the native peoples of Alaska. “We ask that you work with us to stop the disastrous erosion caused by global warming,” he said. “Many of our villages are ready to slide off into the waters of Alaska, and in some cases, there will be absolutely no hope, we will need to move many villages.”
“Honorable President Barack Obama – he who cares – it’s good to see you today,” said Wilfred Cleveland president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Bear Clan, from the state of Wisconsin.
“Today we, the native nations, have formed governments, and we must continuously fight to maintain our sovereignty and our lands we were once stewards of,” said Cleveland. “We must have the same relationship with the federal government as the states. We must not be restricted under the watchdog of the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], but rather be enhanced with a nation-with-nation relationship.”
“We were not born owners of these lands, but stewards,” Cleveland said. “Today we have to purchase our lands back and we have this process of putting our land back into trust … and that’s a long process that is there. Part of this process is giving states, county, and even local governments an opportunity to say whether these lands can go in the trust or not. Now I ask you, is that nation-to-nation relationship?”
John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe in Oklahoma, told the President that his tribe has on its lands the largest Superfund site in the United States, the Tar Creek Superfund site.
“We have 72 million tons of mining waste on our lands,” said Berrey. “I would like to ask you to come visit it and see the devastation caused by this management of tribal resources, and help elevate tribes to the same level of states when we’re dealing with the remediation of Superfund sites so we can have the same voice as the state in designing a better future and environment for our people.”
President Obama said he would “make sure that somebody follows up directly with your tribe on this Superfund site.”
Caroline Cannon, president for the Native Village of Point Hope in Alaska, said, “I came here with a message from my tribe, that we are impacted with the offshore drilling, the decision that’s been made on behalf of our tribe during the Bush administration. And we would like you to overturn that.”
“I live in the coastal village, and exactly where climate change has a big impact,” said Cannon. “We are a whaling community, and we need help. It’s happening so fast that last year, a couple of years ago, there were some incidents that occurred because of the ice condition during the whaling season, so I would like help.”
“We also are around the coast of the Red Dog Mine, and they have decided that they’re going to have a discharge pipeline to our ocean, where we highly rely on our food resources,” said Cannon.
Obama said that with respect to offshore drilling, “Secretary Salazar is in the process of reviewing some of the directives that were issued under the previous administration. And I am confident that as part of that overarching review, that consultation with potentially affected nations will be part of Ken’s process.”
Marcus Dominick Levings, also called Ee-Ba-Da-Gish, White-Headed Eagle, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara in western North Dakota, told the President that his people have oil and gas on their lands. “We have an opportunity to be independent from any means of federal programs,” he said, asking that a lengthy development process be eliminated “so our elders, who are dying as we speak, can generate opportunities to receive royalties on their minerals.”
“The whole issue of environmental integrity on tribal lands is something that too often has slipped through the cracks or decisions have been made in the absence of consultation with the tribes. So this is going to be a top priority generally – improving our environmental quality,” Obama said.
The issue of climate change is something that we are working diligently on and everybody has a huge interest in this, no place more so than Alaska where the effects are already beginning to be felt. Native peoples whose economies oftentimes may be based on interacting with the natural environment, are already starting to have to make significant changes that have to be addressed.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke attended the conference. Obama offered the services of Secretary Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to help tribal nations resolve their environmental issues.
“Figuring out how we can improve environmental coordination with the tribal nations so that we’re matching the energy agenda with an environmental agenda I think is going to be not only good for native peoples, it’s also going to be good for the United States generally. And we have a lot to learn from your nations in order to create the kind of sustainability in our environment that we so desperately need,” Obama said.
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