Obama creates White House Council on Native affairs

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, July 4, 2013

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Citing a history of destructive policies that have hurt American Indians, President Barack Obama on June 26 established a White House Council on Native American Affairs to promote healthy relationships and respect tribal sovereignty.

Leaders of 30 federal departments and agencies will serve on the council, which is charged with improving "coordination of federal programs and the use of resources available to tribal communities."

Specifically, the council will aid tribes with economic development, transportation, housing, education and health care.

"As we work together to forge a brighter future for all Americans, we cannot ignore a history of mistreatment and destructive policies that have hurt tribal communities," Obama said in his executive order establishing the council.

"The United States seeks to continue restoring and healing relations with Native Americans and to strengthen its partnership with tribal governments," he said, "for our more recent history demonstrates that tribal self-determination - the ability of tribal governments to determine how to build and sustain their communities - is necessary for successful and prospering communities."

Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior Department, will serve as chair of the council, which also includes heads of the departments of state, treasury, defense, justice, agriculture, commerce, labor, health and human services, housing and urban development, transportation, education, energy, veterans affairs and homeland security.

In her first address to Indian Country since taking over as secretary in April, Jewell pledged to help right past wrongs and work with tribes to protect sovereignty.

"The federal government does not have a proud legacy when it comes to upholding our promises," Jewell said June 27 during the mid-year conference of the National Congress of American Indians, held in Reno, Nevada. "I can't reverse all of that in a four-year period of time, but I can make important progress."

Jewell's appearance at the NCAI conference came the day after Obama announced the new council.

"My boss in the Oval Office cares deeply about you," she said during an emotional speech that touched on a variety of topics in Indian Country, including the importance of developing traditional and renewable energy sources on tribal lands, continuing efforts to repair tribal schools and establishing government-to-government relationships that respect tribes' sovereignty.

"My North Star in supporting you will be promoting tribal self-governance and self-determination, recognizing the inherent right of tribal governments to make your own decisions," she said. "You know better than any of us do what you need in your tribes and in your communities."

Obama's executive order establishes a national policy to ensure that the government engages in a "true and lasting government-to-government relationship" with tribes. This includes honoring trusts and treaties forged with tribes and engaging in "meaningful consultation" with tribes.

The council is instructed to meet a minimum of three times per year and develop policy to support tribal self-governance and improve the quality of life of American Indians. The council will make policy recommendations to the president and help organize the yearly White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Navajo leaders are applauding Obama's efforts, which are unprecedented in Washington's relationships with American Indians.

"We thank the Obama administration for establishing the White House Council on Native American Affairs and look forward to continuing the nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government," said Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office.

Navajo President Ben Shelly is celebrating Obama's newly established council, but he issued a statement urging the council to consider the unique issues facing individual tribes.

"I am thankful that President Obama is recognizing that tribes have unique circumstances that are separate and distinct from other issues in America," Shelly said in his statement. "The Navajo Nation is the largest populated tribe with the largest land base. Many of our needs specifically apply only to large, land-based tribes, and other issues relate only to the Navajo Nation. I hope the council recognizes and understands many tribes have many different needs."