WASHINGTON – The beat of drums echoed off the walls of the Department of the Interior auditorium Wednesday as members of the Native American Women Warriors Color Guard moved toward the stage with tribal flags in hand.
Just minutes before, the room was filled with laughter and conversation as friends and family gathered. But as the traditional song filled the space, they fell quiet.
More than 100 Indigenous leaders were on hand for the first of two days of the Biden administration’s third annual Tribal Nations Summit, where President Joe Biden on Wednesday vowed to strengthen relationships with tribal nations and advance tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
The two-day summit gives tribal leaders and top administration officials a chance to meet and discuss important issues facing Native communities. The summits were first held by the Obama administration and resumed by Biden, after a four-year pause during the Trump administration.
“It’s hard work to heal the wrongs of the past, change the course and move forward. But the actions we’re taking today are key steps into that new era of tribal sovereignty and self-determination, a new era grounded in dignity and respect that recognizes your fundamental rights to govern and grow on your own terms,” Biden told the summit.
“That’s what this summit is all about,” Biden said.
Flanked by administration and tribal officials, Biden then signed an executive order to reform federal funding and support for tribal nations, sparking cheers and applause from the audience.
The new order in part requires that federal agencies ensure funding for tribes is accessible and equitable; creates an online Access to Capital Clearinghouse, a one-stop-shop where tribes and Native businesses can find and access grants; and directs the White House Council on Native American Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget, and the White House Domestic Policy Council to measure federal funding shortfalls for tribes and develop recommendations for necessary funding and programs.
“The most important thing for tribes in Oklahoma, certainly from the Cherokee Nation standpoint, is making sure there’s a really efficient way to get funding to our programs,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.
Hoskin said the U.S. government has an obligation to fund certain programs for tribal communities, and that having to navigate so many hurdles or compete with states for federal funds is not a “government-to-government relationship based on respect.”
Gov. Reggie Wassana of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes said funds allocated to Native communities often never make it there, keeping them from making needed infrastructure repairs or improvements on their land. Wassana said he hopes the administration looks at the policies and regulations that make it hard for tribes to get those necessary funds.
Wassana said a lack of funding and resources also contributes to the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis, which was one of the topics discussed during the first day of the summit. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said there are approximately 4,200 missing and murdered cases that have gone unsolved in the U.S.
“It all comes down to funding,” Wassana said. “They don’t have enough funds to put those many (officers) out into the country to be in those areas where there’s probably a high rate of MMIP events.”
Hoskin shared Wassana’s concern, adding that the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people is a big issue both in Oklahoma and within the Cherokee Nation.
“Disinvestment in Indian Country leads to a great many ailments, including people that are disproportionately victims of violent crime,” Hoskin said.
“It’s just the truth,” he said.
In 2021, Biden signed an executive order to improve public safety and criminal justice for Native Americans and address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. The administration this year created the Not Invisible Commission, MMIP Regional Outreach Program and a national plan to end gender-based violence, among other initiatives, according to a 2023 Progress Report for Tribal Nations released at the summit.
Other achievements of the past year outlined in the report included securing more stable advance funding for the Indian Health Service, and signing more than 190 new tribal agreements to co-manage or co-steward federal lands and waters, up from 20 such agreements signed in 2022.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland also highlighted the $45 billion she said has been directed toward Indian Country under the administration’s Investing in America agenda, an amount she said is more than 15 years’ worth of the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget.
Still, both administration and tribal officials said the work is far from over to support Native communities and advance tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
“We’ve made progress. But we know Indigenous communities still live in the shadows of the failed policies of the past,” Biden told the summit. “That’s why I’m committed to working with you to write a new and better chapter in American history.”
– Cronkite News is partnering with Gaylord News, a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, to expand coverage of Indigenous communities.