On November 13, 2013, representatives from a majority of the 566 federally-recognized Tribal nations assembled in the U.S. Department of the Interior amphitheater in Washington, D.C. as guests of President Barack Obama for the White House Tribal Nations Conference. I represented the Citizen Potawatomi Nation at the event and am sharing this brief report with you.
This was the fifth year the President has held the conference and my second as a participant. More members of the Cabinet attended this year than last, and I found them to be more straightforward in acknowledging the federal government’s obligations to the Native Nations and the government’s failures – in a whole host of areas – to meet those commitments. As you may know, there are some newly-appointed Cabinet members and I found them, particular Secretary Sally Jewell, credible about their personal commitments to follow through on what matters to Native people.
Last year I felt that it was an interesting, though not particularly substantive day. During “listening sessions” we as Nation representatives could raise issues and concerns. But last year those sessions were brief and there was little give and take. This year there were more opportunities for Tribal leaders to speak, there was more interaction and commitment from government “listeners,” and there was a great deal of ground to cover – from the impact on our communities of sequestration to the White House’s proposal to cap contract support costs reimbursed to the Tribes, to the importance of bolstering Indian education initiatives, including providing increased financial support to tribal colleges and education as a key means of fighting poverty.
I attended the Economic Development listening session, which we were told was the most widely-attended breakout session. The items raised ranged from reminding federal officials of the basic special status of Indians and urging protection of Tribal e-commerce initiatives against state regulation (several California tribal leaders emphasized this point), to the need to fund and support water protection and other environmental initiatives, to the imperative of preserving fishing and hunting rights, to urging adoption of new jobs initiatives for Indian people. I had the opportunity to speak briefly and highlighted the CPN’s ongoing efforts to have our fee land moved into trust so that we can secure this land as our homeland and pursue economic development initiatives on it, and urged the administration to continuing moving forward on land- into-trust applications. Notably, during the conference Secretary
Jewell announced a goal of “Placing more than 500,000 acres of land in trust over the next three years,” and stated: “I’m committed to making it happen.”
An item of interest to our current and future law students was U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a new component of the Attorney General’s Honors Program – known as the Attorney General’s Indian Country Fellowship. Under the new Indian Country Fellowship, highly-qualified law school graduates will spend three years working on Indian Country cases – primarily in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, but also with opportunities to be detailed to the offices of tribal prosecutors. This will create a new pipeline of legal talent with expertise and deep experience in federal Indian law, tribal law, and Indian Country issues. And it will help to build capacity, combat violent crime, and bolster public safety in Native nations, said Attorney General Holder. I have high expectations for the program and will keep you posted as more information about this fellowship is announced.
The afternoon was devoted to a group listening session during which quite a number of Native leaders spoke. The day’s proceedings (except the breakout sessions) were recorded and can be viewed through the U.S. Department of the Interior’s website. The candid photos I took during the conference are posted here. (You do not need to join Facebook to view these photos, just copy and paste the link to your browser).