Just days after taking office, President Joe Biden signed a memorandum signaling the administration’s commitment to strengthen its nation-to-nation relationship with more than 570 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.
“It is a priority of my Administration to make respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance, commitment to fulfilling Federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, and regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations cornerstones of Federal Indian policy,” Biden wrote.
Biden cited Executive Order 13175, signed by former President Bill Clinton in late 2000, that requires all federal departments and agencies to consult and collaborate with tribes when developing policies that have tribal implications, and he gave department and agency heads 90 days to report back on how they would accomplish this.
Since then, the administration has taken some historic steps to improve the lives of the more than 5 million Native Americans. Among them:
Biden nominated an unprecedented number of Native Americans to Senate-confirmed positions, most notably former U.S. Representative Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico and member of the Laguna Pueblo, as interior secretary.
Through the Indian Health Service, the government has administered more than 1.7 million COVID-19 vaccinations to tribe members, tribal health care workers and essential workers in Indian Country.
Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help tribal governments combat the pandemic’s economic impact, allocating $30 billion to meet tribes’ most critical needs – including $20 billion in direct payments to more than 570 tribal governments.
He also signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which set aside more than $13 billion to help Native communities mitigate drought, improve water and sanitation, conduct mine and well cleanup, manage wildfires, restore devastated ecosystems, improve transportation and increase broadband access in Indian Country.
Earlier this week, Haaland announced a series of nation-to-nation consultations to be held in late January to allow tribal input on the various programs and initiatives outlined in the new law.
Biden halted leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, revoked a key permit needed to build the U.S. segment of the Keystone XL pipeline, and restored borders of two national monuments in Utah, the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, which are culturally and spiritually important to several tribal nations in the region.
The interior secretary created a new Missing & Murdered (MM) Unit inside the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Office of Justice Services to review unsolved cases and coordinate with tribal and federal (FBI) law enforcement on active investigations. The BIA also launched a new website where the public can view MM cases and submit tips anonymously and, in some cases, be eligible for rewards.
Haaland also launched a federal probe into federal Indian boarding schools to assess their continued impact on Native communities and signed a memorandum of understanding to share information with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which has been investigating boarding schools for nearly a decade.
“Indian Country is generally quite pleased about the cultural and inclusionary accomplishments of the Biden administration to date,” said Rob Capriccioso, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan and senior editor at Tribal Business News. “Many are over the moon that the Interior Department under Secretary Haaland is finally paying attention to boarding school atrocities, as well as to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the protection of sacred Native sites.”
However welcome, he said, these steps are long overdue.
“Many Native people feel the federal government had the treaty and legal trust responsibility to rectify [these issues] long, long ago,” Capriccioso told VOA in an emailed statement. “Secretary Haaland knows this reality all too well, I believe, and so she is tackling these baseline issues expediently and boldly.”
Capriccioso is critical, however, of how Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen distributed ARPA funds to tribes.
“Many tribal leaders have pressed for her to establish an Office of Tribal Affairs, as other federal agencies have done over the years,” he said. “Yet she would not do so. Thus, formulas established under her watch ended up seeing $20 billion in pandemic relief distributed to tribes in a way that many felt was inequitable, and it was proven so in a policy paper by Harvard researchers who were also concerned about the matter.”
That study by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development showed that 32 tribes – about 5% of all eligible tribes – received approximately half of the total available funds.
Simon Moya-Smith, an Oglala Lakota and Chicano writer and journalist, says Indigenous people aren’t “jumping for joy” yet.
“Biden speaks heavily, and he speaks well when it comes to his awareness of climate change and how that impacts Indigenous people and the globe,” Moya-Smith said. “But at the end of the day, he failed to stop the Line 3 pipelines. He just turned a blind eye to it.”
The Line 3 pipeline, which was completed in October, replaced, expanded and rerouted an ailing 1960s pipeline, enabling Canadian multinational Enbridge to double the flow of tar sands oil through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin. Native Americans cite Line 3’s history of spills and worry Line 3 threatens land and water – especially treaty-protected wild rice beds on which the Ojibwe depend.
Moya-Smith said he welcomes the federal investigation into boarding schools, which will “at least” open conversations.
“We are excluded from the conversation on so many other topics,” he said. “People are happy to talk to us about mascots or Thanksgiving, but on topics like health care, jobs, the cost of prescription drugs, or education, we’re excluded.”
While he has great faith in Haaland because she was “raised Indigenous,” like many Native Americans, he is skeptical about the government’s ability to live up to its promises.
“I’m not saying the Biden administration isn’t doing good things,” Moya-Smith added. “But we’re not sitting around holding our breaths to see if it delivers.”