Tribal leaders prepare for White House tribal summit

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, November 29, 2012

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N ext week tribal leaders from across the nation will gather in Washington for face-to-face meetings with President Barack Obama and his administration.

The White House announced last week the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference is scheduled for Dec. 5 in the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium at the Department of the Interior.

The Interior Department has been the location of previous conferences because the White House does not have a large enough space to accommodate the number of attendees.

This will be the fourth year for the conference and like previous years, the focus is to provide tribal leaders from the 566 federally recognized tribes the opportunity to interact with Obama and representatives from his administration.

Each federally recognized tribe will be invited to send one representative to the conference.

Vice President Rex Lee Jim will represent the Navajo Nation because President Ben Shelly has a prior commitment, according to Erny Zah, director of communications for the Office of the President and Vice President.

Shelly will be attending the Dec. 4 graduation for the first class to complete the Navajo Nation Superfund Job Training Initiative, a program training Navajo workers to become qualified in hazardous waste operations and emergency response, CPR and first aid, and radon measurement and mitigation to help with the cleanup of uranium abandoned mine sites in Church Rock, N.M.

"The president wanted to make sure he was there for that," Zah said. "This is important to him."

Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, said Jim is set to attend the entire conference and possibly some follow up meetings on Dec. 6 that focus on critical issues for the tribe.

"Every year the format has been evolving…" Pratte said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Among the topics the Washington office anticipates Obama will discuss is the Cobell settlement, the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and the Violence Against Women Act.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Monday the final approval of the Cobell settlement and outlined steps the Interior will take to help implement the $3.4 billion settlement, which resolves a long-running class action lawsuit that accused the federal government of failing to account for billions in Indian assets it held in trust over the last century.

Pratte said a main concern for tribal leaders is the fiscal cliff's impact on funding for Indian Country, including an eight percent reduction to Indian Health Services.

The fiscal cliff is a combination of expiring tax cuts and automatic federal spending reductions that would take effect at the start of the new year unless Congress acts to stop it.

"As tribal nations, we are concerned about what the reduction will mean to our budgets," Pratte said.

As with previous conferences, the National Congress of American Indians will host a series of activities, including a tribal leaders preparation teleconference on Nov. 30, prior to the event.

The Navajo Nation is not a member of NCAI but the organization is asking its members to make time for Congressional meetings that focus on Indian Country priorities including the federal budget, the Carcieri fix, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and the amendment to the Stafford Act.

Pratte said the Stafford Act amendments is important to the Navajo Nation because its implementation would allow tribes to apply for federal disaster aid directly from the U.S. president.

Under existing law, tribes are treated as local governments and must rely on state governments to make a request when a disaster impacts tribal lands.

If enacted into law, tribes would be treated the same as states and it would make federal resources more available when responding to disasters.

"That's something the Obama administration as been supportive of," she said.

Last year's conference had five break out sessions that focused on job creation and growing tribal economies, promoting safe tribal communities, protecting natural resources and respect for cultural rights, improving access to healthcare, and strengthening the government to government relationship.

At that time, Obama also announced a new White House initiative that focuses on American Indian and Alaska Native education and strengthening tribal colleges and universities.

Obama developed the tribal nations conference during his first year in office and it continues to build on strengthening the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country.

The root of the tribal summit begin in May 2008 when Obama was running for president and promised to host an annual summit with tribal leaders during a speech on the Crow Nation in Montana.

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