By Fatima Hussein and Felicia Fonseca
President Joe Biden on Wednesday pledged to give Native Americans a stronger voice in federal affairs, promising at the first in-person summit on tribal affairs in six years that he will bolster tribal consultations, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in decision-making and funding for communities struggling with the impacts of climate change.
Biden spoke on the opening day of the two-day White House Tribal Nations Summit to representatives from hundreds of Native American and Alaska Native tribes, reiterating and announcing a series of new commitments. The summit coincides with National Native American Heritage Month, which is celebrated in November.
The Biden administration said its goal is to build on previous progress and create opportunities for lasting change in Indian Country, which isn't guaranteed without codified laws and regulations.
“Administrations can bring in their priorities, but they shouldn’t be telling us who have lived here since the beginning of time how to manage our resources, which resources we can even access,” said Richard Peterson, president of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “These are things that are inherent in our sovereignty.”
Among the pledges from the Biden administration is to establish uniform standards for federal agencies to consult with tribes and go beyond a “check the box” exercise, finalize a 10-year plan to revitalize Native languages and strengthen tribal rights like hunting and fishing that are outlined in existing treaties.
Biden also said he intends to designate Avi Kwa Ame, a desert mountain near Laughlin, Nevada, that's considered sacred to Native Americans, as a new national monument. Last year, he restored the boundaries for Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
On climate change, Biden said $135 million in federal money is going to 11 tribal communities in Alaska, Arizona, California, Louisiana, Maine and Washington to help plan for and relocate to safe ground because of climate-related environmental threats.
“There are tribal communities at risk of being washed away,” he told summit participants. “It's devastating.”
A 2020 study from the Interior Department found that $5 billion would be needed over the next 50 years to relocate tribal communities and Alaska Native villages at risk of severe infrastructure damage due to coastal erosion and extreme weather events.
On health care, Biden reiterated a commitment for $9.1 billion for the Indian Health Service, which provides health care for federally recognized tribes, and make the funding mandatory.
Whether Congress will act on that and other tribal issues is another matter.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez said he's been advocating for a speedier process to get infrastructure projects approved on the reservation that stretches 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. He said it requires constant advocacy.
“Even when it's legislated, it takes a significant effort especially when, at times, tribal issues take the back seat to larger, national issues,” he told The Associated Press.
Thomas Lozano, chair of the National American Indian Housing Council, wants to see a federal grant program for housing in tribal communities reauthorized and a boost in funding that takes into account inflation and supply chain costs. Housing ensures tribal elders who are historians and children who will be future leaders are safe, he said.
“It's important to keep a roof over their heads and not just in substandard living, but in comfortable living that every family deserves,” said Lozano, who is from the Enterprise Rancheria tribe in California.
Federal agencies in the Biden administration have been creating tribal advisory councils and reimaging tribal consultation policies with a goal of garnering consensus among tribes. Some of the more significant commitments from the Biden administration involve incorporating Indigenous knowledge and practices into decision-making and federal research.
The Commerce Department is the latest federal agency to sign on to an effort to work with tribes to co-manage publish resources, such as water and fisheries. The Agriculture Department and the Interior Department have signed 20 co-stewardship agreements with tribes, and an additional 60 are under review, the administration said.
The tribal nations summit wasn't held during then-President Donald Trump's administration. The Biden administration held one virtually last year as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the U.S. and highlighted deepening and long-standing inequities in tribal communities.
Both administrations signed off on legislation that infused much-needed funding into Indian Country to help address health care, lost revenue, housing, internet access and other needs. The 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. received a combined $20 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money under the Biden administration.
Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which provided $8 billion to tribes and Alaska Native corporations but had more rigid guidelines on how it could be spent. The Treasury Department was sued over how that funding was allocated and faced harsh criticism for the time it took to get the money to tribes.
Biden's Treasury Department said it prioritized tribal engagement and feedback in distributing funding from the latest aid package. A report released Wednesday by the administration outlines how tribes spent the money on more than 3,000 projects and services.
The Karuk Tribe in northwestern California, for example, used some of the aid for permanent and temporary housing after a wildfire that burned 200 homes in the Klamath Mountains displaced tribal members.
The Native Village of Deering and other tribal governments in Alaska pooled funds to ensure access to preschool and free meals, along with extra servings in an area where food has been scarce.
Other tribal communities across the U.S. have spent the money on housing for tribal members, transportation to veterans hospitals, after-school facilities, language and culture programs, emergency services and health care facilities.
Biden promised to make official presidential visits to Indian Country, saying “the United States owes a solemn trust and treaty obligation that we haven’t always lived up to. I will do so in the enduring spirit of our nation-to-nation relationship, the spirit of friendship, stewardship, and respect.”
He stressed the need for “respect for tribes as nations and treaties as law, ... respect for Indigenous knowledge and tribal consultations as a key part of federal agency decision making.”
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.