‘We have a voice’: Biden administration hosts first Tribal Nations Summit since 2016

By: - November 16, 2021 8:46 am

Joe Biden speaks on the opening day of the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 15, 2021. Screenshot via the White House.

State, federal and tribal leaders came together during the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Monday to talk about commitments towards Indian Country and highlight the importance of the nation-to-nation relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. government.

“The White House sits on the ancestral homelands of the Anacostan and the Piscataway people,” Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, said during her opening remarks. “I hope that the ancestors are smiling down as we take the next few days to work together on the challenges and opportunities facing Indian Country.”

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The summit is an opportunity to celebrate the progress as well as map out plans to improve outcomes for Indigenous communities across the United States, according to the White House.

“In spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, we are still here and we have a voice,” Haaland said. “A parade of voices from around the country speaking to issues that have been spoken of for generations but which so often have been mired by indifference.”

Haaland said she is only one of many that have taken the steps needed to move past the days of inaction and apathy in order to take Native issues to the forefront of policy discussions and to ensure that tribal consolation is an accepted way of doing business in Indian Country.

This is the first time the summit has gathered since 2016. 

“We have prioritized a number of early actions to strengthen Indian Country, including historic investments in tribal communities through the American Rescue Plan,” Haaland said, adding that the Biden administration is committed to consulting with tribes and Native people as policies are developed.

Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland speaks on the opening day of the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 15, 2021. Screenshot via the White House.

The American Rescue Plan was signed into law on March 11, and it invests $1.75 billion into Native American government programs that are managed under the oversight of the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs.

President Joe Biden said the American Rescue Plan is “the most significant investment in the history of Indian Country.

He noted that the COVID-19 relief package incudes more than $31 billion dollars in funding for Indigenous communities that will help with broadband, climate and energy resilience, water settlements, drought mitigation, mine and well cleanup, water and sanitation, transportation, wildfire mitigation and ecosystem restoration.

“Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions,” Biden said during his opening remarks. “We have to continue to stand up for the dignity of tribal sovereign nations.”

Biden noted that Haaland is the first Indigenous person to be appointed as the Secretary of Interior, but said she won’t be the last — and that his administration has more than 50 Native Americans serving in significant roles.

Biden also praised tribal nations for stepping up for their people when COVID-19 hit, which has resulted in Indigenous communities going from being the most devastated communities to now being the most vaccinated against the virus.

“When COVID-19 struck, it hit Indian Country with devastating consequences. Native Americans contracted the virus at over three times the rate of white Americans, nearly twice the rates of lives lost,” Biden said. 

Haaland and Biden also mentioned the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which Biden signed into law Monday, and how it also invests in Indigenous communities.

“We’re long overdue to make investments in infrastructure, but nobody knows that better than Indian County,” Biden said, “Tribal lands have been chronically underfunded for generations.”

Biden said the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is the single largest investment in Tribal infrastructure with more than $13 billion dollars in direct investments into Indian County.

The measure will make infrastructure investments spanning transportation, water, sanitation, energy, environmental restoration, telecommunications, and climate resiliency, according to the White House.

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Biden also announced five new initiatives from his administration geared toward Indian Country:

  • An initiative involving 17 departments and agencies to protect tribal treaty rights and the work of the federal government.
  • And initiative to increase tribal participation in the management and stewardship of federal lands.
  • Biden pledged to be the first president to work with the tribes to comprehensively incorporate tribal ecological knowledge into the federal government’s scientific approach to fight climate change. 
  • Barring oil and gas drilling in the greater Chaco landscape in northwest New Mexico.
  • An executive order addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

The first day of the summit also included three panel discussions featuring tribal leaders and federal officials talking about combatting COVID-19 in Indian Country, Native American education and languages, and public safety and justice.

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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