By Maddy Keyes, Gaylord News
WASHINGTON — The beat of drums echoed off the walls of the Department of the Interior auditorium as members of the Native American Women Warriors Color Guard moved toward the stage with tribal flags in hand.
Just minutes before, the room was filled with laughter and boisterous conversation as friends and family gathered together. But as the traditional song filled the space, they fell quiet.
It was the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration's 3rd annual Tribal Nations Summit, and more than a hundred Indigenous leaders from across the nation were gathered to hear the President's plan for strengthening relationships with Tribal Nations and advancing Tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
"It's hard work to heal the wrongs of the past, change the course and move forward. But the actions we're taking today are key steps into that new era of tribal sovereignty and self-determination, a new era grounded in dignity and respect that recognizes your fundamental rights to govern and grow on your own terms," President Joe Biden said Wednesday at the summit.
"That's what this summit is all about."
The two-day summit is an opportunity for Tribal leaders and top administration officials to come together to discuss important issues facing Tribal communities, according to a White House fact sheet. Biden, who has voiced his commitment for supporting Indian Country since he took office, is the first president since Barack Obama to host a Tribal Summit.
There, with members of his administration and Tribal Nation leaders standing behind him, Biden signed an executive order to reform federal funding and support for Tribal Nations. As he finished signing his name onto the document, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause.
The new order in part requires federal agencies to ensure funding for tribes is accessible and equitable; creates The Tribal Access to Capital Clearinghouse, an online one-stop-shop where tribes and Native businesses can find and access grants; and directs the White House Council on Native American Affairs, the Office and Management and Budget, and the White House Domestic Policy Council to measure federal funding shortfalls for tribes and develop recommendations for necessary funding and programs, according to the fact sheet.
"The most important thing for tribes in Oklahoma, certainly from the Cherokee Nation standpoint, is making sure there's a really efficient way to get funding to our programs," said Chuck Hoskin Jr., Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Hoskin said the U.S. government has an obligation to fund certain programs and initiatives for Tribal communities, and that having to navigate so many hurdles or compete with states for federal funds goes against a "government-to-government relationship based on respect."
Gov. Reggie Wassana of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes said oftentimes the funds allocated to Native communities never make it there, preventing them from making necessary infrastructure repairs or improvements on their land. Wassana said he hopes the Biden administration looks at the policies and regulations that make it difficult for tribes to get these necessary funds.
Wassana said a lack of funding and resources also contributes to the ongoing missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis, which was one of the topics discussed during the first day of the summit.
According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are approximately 4,200 missing and murdered cases that have gone unsolved in the U.S.
"It all comes down to funding," Wassana said. "They don't have enough funds to put those many (officers) out into the country to be in those areas where there's probably a high rate of MMIP events."
Hoskin shared Wassana's concern, adding that the missing and murdered Indigenous people crisis is a big issue back in Oklahoma, as well as within the Cherokee Nation.
"Disinvestment in Indian Country leads to a great many ailments, including people that are disproportionately victims of violent crime," Hoskin said.
"It's just the truth," he said.
In 2021, Biden signed an executive order to improve public safety and criminal justice for Native Americans and address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. This past year, the administration has continued efforts to implement this order by creating the Not Invisible Commission, MMIP Regional Outreach Program and a national plan to end gender-based violence, among other initiatives, according to a 2023 Progress Report for Tribal Nations released during the summit.
Also included in the report, which outlines progress the administration made in the previous year, was securing more stable advance funding for Indian Health Service and signing more than 190 new Tribal agreements to co-manage or co-steward federal lands and waters, a jump from the 20 agreements signed in 2022, according to the report.
Additionally, through the President's Investing in America agenda, this year the Biden-Harris Administration has invested $45 billion — more than 15-years’ worth of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ annual budget — in Indian Country, said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
Still, both the Biden administration and Tribal leaders said the work is far from over to support Native communities and advance Tribal sovereignty and self-determination.
"We usher in a new era of relationship between our government and Nation-to-Nation relationships. We've made progress. But we know Indigenous communities still live in the shadows of the failed policies of the past," Biden said.
"That's why I'm committed to working with you to write a new and better chapter in American history."
Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. For more stories by Gaylord News go to GaylordNews.net.