WASHINGTON — Leaders from 44 Alaska Native tribes will be in Washington, D.C., Thursday to attend the seventh White House Tribal Nations Conference, where they’ll hear remarks from President Barack Obama and a host of cabinet secretaries.
The Obama administration hopes to, in part, highlight efforts over Obama’s two terms to set aside long-standing legal fights and shift federal focus to bolstering tribal sovereignty and aiding Native youth. Each U.S. tribe was invited to send one leader to the annual conference.
Education, housing, health shortfalls in North
Obama focused much of his recent trip to Alaska on Native communities, restoring the peak formerly known as Mount McKinley to its Koyukon Athabasan name, “Denali,” announcing assistance efforts to remote tribal communities, and tying their local problems, particularly in the Arctic, to his efforts to combat climate change.
But the problems faced by those youths and their tribal elders hold great weight, and initiatives to address education problems, housing shortfalls and mental health problems, including staggering suicide rates, have far to go.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who leads a collaborative effort among federal agencies to address tribal issues, said there is “no easy solution” when it comes to many Native problems. But the administration hopes that addressing social, housing and criminal services through a more holistic approach can help.
Arctic communities visited
Obama has made several high-profile visits to Native and tribal lands, including his recent trip to Alaska, and visits to Oklahoma and a trip last year to Standing Rock, a reservation that straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota.
Last year’s White House tribal conference marked the launch of “Generation Indigenous,” a program focused on helping Native young people through community projects, increased peer support and their own Washington, D.C., White House-led gathering.
In the 10 months surrounding July’s Native youth gathering, cabinet secretaries have been traveling to Indian country to meet with Native youth. Eight cabinet secretaries have traveled to Indian country thus far, said White House policy advisor Cecilia Muñoz.
Jewell has visited 31 tribes during her time leading the Interior Department, including in Kivalina and Kotzebue, she said in an interview Wednesday. And she cited her department’s efforts to remake the Bureau of Indian Education.
On Thursday, Obama will announce several new initiatives, including a centralized website — Native One Stop — focused on federal resources for American Indians and Alaska Natives. The site will be home to scholarship, training, loan and other information.
The Obama administration plans to focus efforts of seven federal agencies on reducing homelessness in Native communities.
Focus on tribal lands, energy projects
Several agencies will bolster their efforts to protect sacred sites and improve safety on tribal land. The administration will continue to help promote energy projects on tribal lands and a host of new programs will focus on helping young Native people.
The effort to focus on tribal and Native youth follows a series of high profile and high dollar legal settlements.
In recent months, the administration settled a quarter-century long series of lawsuits over the government not paying all of its obligations to tribes, promising to send $940 million back to the tribes.
And on Wednesday, the Interior Department announced next steps in efforts to buy back “fractionalized” Indian lands, to be turned over to tribes. Fractionalized Indian lands are the result of a long-ago policy of breaking up tribal lands in the Lower 48 to individual tracts. Over time, owners have died and the tracts are divided among heirs, “exponentially over generations,” according to an Interior Department report. Just one tract of land on the Crow Creek Reservation in South Dakota has 1,200 owners now, according to the report.
In reality, that means those lands are often left unused, leaving holes in reservations where it is nearly impossible to gain approval from all owners to rent or control the property.
The program follows a recent massive 2012 court settlement, providing $1.9 billion for a congressionally authorized program to buy up lands through 2022. So far the Interior Department has paid almost $715 million for nearly 1.5 million acres through the program since 2013, and now they’re looking for more.
None of those lands are in Alaska, but some Alaskans have sold off their ownership in the program.
But Alaska Natives do get some benefit from the program: Native youth are eligible for a scholarship fund created by the 2012 settlement. So far $30 million in proceeds have been allocated, out of $60 million the trust will eventually contain.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Arctic MP named to federal cabinet in Canada, Eye on the Arctic
Finland: UN rep. urges suspension of Sámi elections, Yle News
Greenland: Greenland, Alaska elections bolster Arctic resource extraction, Blog by Mia Bennett
Norway: Conservative victory in Norway: What does it mean for the Arctic?, Blog by Mia Bennett
Sweden: Land, water rights big issues in Sweden’s Sami elections, Radio Sweden
United States: Feature Interview – The politics of climate, Eye on the Arctic