Honoring Sovereignty and the Trust Relationship with American Indians and Alaskan Natives
David J. Hayes is Deputy Secretary at the Department of the Interior
Yesterday I was honored to deliver a keynote address to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) 68th Annual Conference in Portland, Oregon.
On behalf of the Department of the Interior, I outlined steps that we are taking to reset the all-important relationship between the federal government and our First Americans. The challenge was laid down by Indian country early in our Administration. As a member of the President’s Transition Team, I hosted a group of tribal leaders at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian to solicit their suggestions for what our priorities should be.
The tribal leaders spoke with virtually one voice. They asked the President’s new team to: (1) once again respect tribes as sovereigns by engaging in a true, respectful government-to-government relationship; (2) stop the devastating budget cuts that had reduced Indian budgets by 10 percent during the previous Administration; and (3) try to resolve the Cobell trust litigation that had so dominated and – in many cases – poisoned relationships between Indian country and the federal government. More than one tribal leader in that meeting noted that the Cobell matter and the other tribal trust cases were taking “all of the oxygen out of the room,” diverting attention from the many other pressing challenges in Indian country, such as health, safety, education and economic development.
We listened to these requests and are making progress on all of these important fronts.
We have engaged the tribes in a complete overhaul of our Department’s approach to government-to-government relations. The Interior Department will shortly be releasing the fruits of that effort: a groundbreaking new consultation policy that includes new accountability measures, training, and reporting.
On the budget front, we have stemmed the bleeding. Despite facing government-wide budget challenges, the Indian Affairs budget has sustained an overall increase of $209.4 million from FY 2008 to the FY 2012 budget request -- a 9% increase from FY 2008. We must work together to maintain these gains.
And by engaging at the highest levels, we were able to reach a just and fair settlement of the Cobell trust litigation – after 14 long years of conflict. $1.5 billion dollars in class action payments are poised to go out to Indian country as soon as the pending appeals are resolved. And we just wrapped up our last of several government-to-government consultation sessions with Indian country as we gear up to administer the settlement’s $1.9 billion dollar land consolidation program – a program that will convert highly fractionated lands that are so divided as to be virtually unusable into lands that are available for the development and use of tribal communities.
But we are far from done. The President is hosting his third summit meeting with tribal leaders in Washington on December 2. The President and all of us in his Administration will have a full agenda of topics to discuss with Indian country, including improving the health, education, public safety and economic opportunities for our First Americans.
As we move forward, we will be guided by several touchstones: we must continue to right past wrongs; honor tribal sovereignty; provide a boost for Indian country when asked, but in a non-intrusive, respectful way; and, more and more, help get the federal government “out of the way” as tribal governments continue to step out and chart the future course for First Americans.