The new Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently told Tribal leaders in Washington D.C. that "First Americans will have their place at the table in the Obama administration." Less than 24 hours after President Obama took office, Tribes throughout America have put that policy to the test.
The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 Tribes in the Pacific Northwest including the Tulalip, Stillaguamish, and Sauk Suiattle, submitted a 16-page request to President Obama for additional funding and the adoption of a formal policy supporting Tribal management of natural resources. The Commission's request also seeks:
1. The issuance of an Executive Order reaffirming the government-to-government relationship between Tribes and the US government.
2. An additional $12 million per year in funding for the Commission and an extra $4.5 million per year for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
3. Restoration of expansive water rights to Tribes; and
4. Enhanced legal protections for Tribal resources such as salmon and shellfish.
The Commission’s requests were followed closely by a letter to the President from a group of US Senators representing Native constituencies throughout the country, seeking significant new funding for infrastructure and social/educational programs in Native communities. The Senators’ requests included:
• $1.2 billion for Tribal health facilities construction and support;
• $360 million for construction of Tribal justice infrastructure and support;
• $568 million for construction of road and bridge projects on reservations;
• $658 million for construction of Tribal schools and colleges;
• $50 million for housing construction, weatherization, and heating in Native Communities;
• $80 million for Native job training and business development;
• $600 million for water infrastructure development in Tribal lands;
• $4.4 million for energy development on reservations; and
• $50 million to address Tribal land fractionation.
The proposal was submitted by Senators Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Chris Dodd, D-Conn.
During his campaign, President Obama stated:
“The American Indians I have met across this country will be on my mind each day that I am in the White House. You deserve a president who is committed to being a full partner with you; to respecting you, honoring you and working with you every day. That is the commitment I will make to you as President of the United States.”
On the strength of such pledges, Obama received the endorsement of over 100 Tribal leaders throughout America. The coming weeks and months will reveal the true strength behind these promises, and provide a realistic view of the future for Native communities.