A Moral Imperative: Building a Strong Foundation for a Prosperous Future for American Indians and Alaska Natives
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
Remarks as prepared for the National Congress of American Indians
Thank you, President Keel, for that kind introduction.
It is an honor to be here with you today and to address the National Congress of American Indians.
Jefferson Keel has done an excellent job as President, and I thank him for his leadership.
From the beginning, it has been one of the President’s top priorities to help bring real and lasting change in Indian Country… to open a new chapter with the First Americans.
When President Obama took office, he pledged that his Administration would uphold not just a government-to-government relationship with tribes, but a nation-to-nation relationship.
In close consultation with leaders here and across Indian Country, we have done just that.
We have developed a comprehensive agenda to reform, restructure and rebuild federal relations with Indian Country to ensure that American Indians get the opportunities they deserve.
This means respecting the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations and making sure the federal government is honoring its commitments.
This means fulfilling our trust responsibilities to tribal nations and trust resources.
This means working cooperatively to build stronger economies and safer communities.
And this means helping fulfill your vision for your nations; helping your communities achieve their promise; helping your cultures flourish.
American Indians and Alaska Natives must have a strong voice in shaping the policies that affect their communities. We are lucky to have had Larry Echo Hawk serve as a strong advocate for three years in his role as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. And we are lucky to see his strong leadership carried on through Del Laverdure, and now Kevin Washburn. And I am proud that Hilary Tompkins is Solicitor General for the Department of the Interior. In the White House, Jodi Gillette and Charlie Galbraith are important voices for Indian Affairs.
With their help, and with the help of many people in this room, we have seen real results – results that are helping to build safer, stronger, healthier, and more prosperous Indian communities.
First, we have worked to restore tribal homelands. When we started, there was a de facto moratorium on trust land applications. In 2007 and 2008, Interior had acquired only 15,000 acres in trust on behalf of tribes.
Thanks to the great work of BIA Director Mike Black and his team, since 2009, Interior broke that logjam and has acquired more than 180,000 acres of land in trust. We’ve processed almost 1,000 requests for land acquisitions that will allow for agriculture, energy, infrastructure, health and housing projects to move forward and strengthen economies.
Moreover, Indian County deserves responsive and responsible business practices when it comes to acquiring land into trust and managing funds generated from such lands. That’s why we’ve established a Trust Reform Commission to undertake a forward-looking, comprehensive evaluation of our trust management.
We know that the federal government must be more transparent and customer-friendly in managing Indian funds and assets, and I look forward to receiving the Commission’s recommendations. I am grateful for the leadership that Chairwoman Fawn Sharp and Commissioners Tex Hall, Peterson Zah, Bob Anderson and Stacey Leeds are providing on this important effort.
Of course, one of the most significant developments regarding our trust responsibilities was when President Obama signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010.
Thanks to the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, Deputy Secretary David Hayes and Solicitor Tompkins, we negotiated the historic Cobell settlement.
After 14 years of contentious litigation that created a great fissure between the United States and tribal nations, this painful chapter in our nation’s history is finally over.
The $3.4 billion settlement has the potential to profoundly change and improve the administration of American Indian trusts and free up land for the benefit of tribal communities.
And, as part of Elouise Cobell’s legacy, the settlement ensures a $60 million Scholarship Fund for Native American and Alaska Native students.
Building on Cobell, the Administration has engaged tribes in government-to-government negotiations that have led to 57 settlements totaling over $1.1 billion to resolve long-standing trust accounting and trust management claims.
The Cobell settlement – and the work to successfully settle tribal trust cases – marks the beginning of true trust reform and is nothing short of historic.
Second, the Obama administration is working to strengthen tribal economies through the development of water, energy, and infrastructure projects on tribal lands.
This starts with a reenergized commitment to meeting the critical water needs of Native American communities. Water is the lifeblood of communities, and President Obama has signed landmark legislation on six historic water rights settlements.
I have been honored to travel over the past three years to the Taos and Aamodt pueblos in New Mexico, the Crow Tribe of Montana, and the Navajo Nation of New Mexico to celebrate water settlements and projects that will deliver real water to these communities – many for the first time.
The settlements will provide more than $1 billion to some of the most poverty-stricken regions in the nation. For these communities, the permanent water supply will vastly improve their quality of life and will offer greater economic security both now and in the future.
When it comes to gaming, we’ve made timely and balanced decisions on applications based on law and regulations. Rather than letting applications languish, we’ve made 23 decisions in 24 months - the most decisions in that time frame since IGRA was passed in 1988. These projects have the potential to add tens of thousands of jobs in Indian Country.
We are also working to engage tribal governments in the President’s all-of-the-above energy strategy to safely and responsibly expand our nation’s domestic energy resources.
We know that Tribal lands hold great capacity for solar, wind and geothermal projects, and we are committed to helping you unlock that potential. In June, we approved the first-ever, utility-scale solar project on tribal lands. The Moapa Band of Paiute Indians of Nevada were involved in this trailblazing effort to develop a 350-megawatt solar energy project that will help power over 100,000 homes and generate 400 jobs at peak construction.
And just two weeks ago, I was on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota with Tex Hall and Del Laverdure to approve a ‘land-into-trust’ application from the Three Affiliated Tribes. The land will be used to build the first new refinery in the United States in more than 30 years - and the only tribally-owned refinery in the lower 48 states.
These two projects are historic in nature, not just for their energy but also for their potential to transform the tribes’ economies. We can, and should, do more of this across the nation.
These same principles of enhanced tribal self-determination and the promotion of meaningful economic development opportunities were embodied in the HEARTH Act that NCAI worked so hard to enact into law, and which the President signed earlier this year.
Congratulations for your terrific work on this landmark piece of legislation. Now, with the HEARTH Act in place, Tribes will have the ability to move more quickly to address housing, energy and economic development needs without unnecessary bureaucratic delays.
Third, President Obama is investing in the next generation through our efforts to create educational opportunities in Indian Country.
We began in 2009, through the Recovery Act, with nearly $300 million being invested in schools to benefit more than 18,000 Indian students.
Over a hundred school improvement projects are under way, with nearly 90 percent completed.
And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, along with Bureau of Indian Education Acting Director Brian Drapeaux and national experts, are heavily engaged in developing a national education reform agenda that will better serve Indian children.
This includes our commitment to bringing Native languages and cultures back into the Indian education framework.
Fourth, the Obama administration is working to help build safer communities.
We are combating violence in Indian Country where crime rates far exceed national averages.
President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which will allow us to accelerate our focus on safe tribal communities.
We are putting more law enforcement officers in Indian communities, and improving training and equipment.
With the help of the Department of Justice, we are revamping the recruiting process for Bureau of Indian Affairs law officers, increasing the number of applicants for those positions by 500 percent – and overseeing the largest hiring increase in BIA history.
Last year, we completed the first pilot of an intense community policing program on four reservations experiencing high crime rates. We saw promising results – a combined reduction of violent crime of 35% - and have since expanded the program to two additional reservations.
Finally, government-to-government consultation is a keystone to our nation-to-nation relationship. Responding to the charge the President gave to us, all Cabinet Secretaries are working to develop a consultation policy to guide their Departments’ nation-to-nation relationship
With the advice of tribal leaders, Interior developed an enduring, living document that guides everything we do and more effectively engages tribal leaders in policy development.
This makes for a more predictable and stream-lined process and reflects our heartfelt commitment to a transparent, comprehensive and effective consultation policy.
These accomplishments are significant. As one tribal chair told me at the 2011 White House Tribal Nations conference, President Obama’s administration has done more on tribal issues in two years than has been accomplished in the last 20.
But there is no doubt that much more needs to be done.
That’s why we’re working to get over the finish line the most sweeping reform of federal surface leasing regulations in more than 50 years to streamline the approval for home ownership, expedite economic development and spur renewable energy.
That’s why we’re working on a fix to the devastating Carcieri decision to empower tribes to continue their important work of restoring their homelands.
That’s why we’ll continue our record efforts to resolve trust mismanagement claims in a fair and reasonable way.
That’s why we’re working with the Department of Education to ensure that the interests of Indian Country’s next generation are represented in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that will be considered by Congress next year.
And that’s why we’ll continue to fight for healthy budgets that will support Indian Country’s priorities.
We all know that the federal government’s history with Indian nations is long and troubled. We live with a somber legacy of injustice and broken promises.
For me, and for this Administration, that memory drives our commitment to do right and to turn a new page in the relationship between our nations. It is nothing short of a moral imperative.
I am proud of what we have done together over the past four years to build a solid foundation – a lasting framework - for a bright, prosperous and more fulfilling future for the First Americans.
Let’s keep up the momentum.