On December 5, I had the tremendous honor and privilege of attending my first White House Tribal Nations Conference as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The event was hosted by President Obama and Secretary Salazar at the Interior Department’s Sidney R. Yates Auditorium in Washington, D.C. It’s the fourth year in a row that the White House has provided tribal leaders this important opportunity to speak directly with officials at the highest levels of federal government, and hear from the president himself, about Indian Country issues. I was in listening mode, seeking their wisdom.
Leaders from more than 300 federally recognized tribes attended the conference, and cabinet officials heard from them on a variety of important topics. In addition to Secretary Salazar, the leadership of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Transportation, and Treasury, as well as the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration, turned out to report to the tribal leaders on their efforts to help Indian Country move forward. Many others were in the audience, including several members of Congress.
The White House coordinated breakout sessions with topics on “Strengthening Tribal Communities: Economic Development, Housing, Energy and Infrastructure,” “Protecting Our Communities: Law Enforcement and Disaster Relief,” “Securing Our Future: Cultural Protection, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection,” “Building Healthy Communities, Excellence in Education and Native American Youth,” and “Strengthening and Advancing the Government-to-Government Relationship” where tribal leaders could speak face-to-face with federal representatives about their peoples’ concerns and needs. Each session was well-attended (some with standing-room-only participation), and tribal leaders spoke frankly while federal officials listened, offered responses, and took notes.
In the closing session, the federal officials who led the breakout sessions reported to all the attendees what they had heard from the participants in their sessions. This was an incredibly powerful moment for me, and I’m sure for many in the audience, because of two words that were repeated by each speaker: “We heard.”
The opportunity for a tribal leader to come to Washington, D.C., and interact with those working at the highest levels of government has historically been rare. Although there have been occasions, notably in the 19th century, where past administrations met directly with one or a few tribal leaders at a time on federal actions or policies impacting them, it was rare for the White House and cabinet officials to hear directly, on a regular basis, from persons living on Indian reservations and serving in tribal communities.
What Indian Country has experienced over the past four years is something new and exciting in the government-to-government relationship. President Obama’s Tribal Nations Conferences and vigorous implementation of tribal consultation, which he is so committed to that every department is mandated to have its own plan to implement the original Executive Order on tribal consultation, give real meaning to the phrase “government-to-government relationship” and set an important precedent for the future.
Much has been accomplished in Indian Country over the past four years. For those of us in federal government, it means greater respect and support for tribal self-determination; giving tribal governments the tools, training, and support to improve economic, education, health, and public safety conditions in their communities. We are not only listening to, but we are hearing tribal leaders when they come to us with their concerns, their ideas, and their dreams.
Though much has been accomplished, many more challenges remain ahead of us. It’s an incredibly exciting time for Indian Affairs because we are, in many ways, the place where Indian Country and the Federal Government continually intersect. Our team will be working to address the issues tribal leaders raise with us over the next four years and asking them to help set our agenda.
Indian Country has come full circle from the days more than a century ago when tribal leaders frequently came to the nation’s capital to meet face-to-face with the president and members of his cabinet to defend their rights and homelands. This time around, with our help, Indian Country is moving forward to a future filled with hope, progress, and promise. At the Tribal Nations Conference we were listening, and we heard.