President Joe Biden signs an executive order at the 2023 White House Tribal Nations Summit at the U.S. Department of Interior on Dec. 6, 2023 in Washington, D.C. President (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed an executive order Wednesday that would make it easier for tribal nations to access and invest federal funding on their own terms.
“It’s hard work to heal the wrongs of the past and change the course and move forward,” Biden said. “But the actions we are taking today are key steps into that new era of tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”
Leaders from tribal nations gathered at the Interior Department for the 2023 White House Tribal Summit, where the Biden administration unveiled dozens of new actions from the federal government affecting Native Americans.
They included land stewardship partnerships, cleanup of historical sites and finalization of regulations for the return of human remains and sacred items taken without consent and kept in museums and across federal agencies.
Biden said that “new era” will be “grounded in dignity and respect that recognizes your fundamental rights to govern and grow on your own terms.”
Pipeline for federal funds
The executive order also creates a “one-stop-shop” for federal funding to be available to tribes and Native American businesses through a database called the Tribal Access to Capital Clearinghouse, which was launched at the Tribal Summit, the White House said.
The order also directs the federal government to address any shortfalls of existing federal funding for tribes.
“As a result of this executive order, Tribes will spend less of their resources cutting through bureaucratic red-tape to apply or comply with federal administrative requirements and use federal dollars more effectively,” the White House said in a fact sheet about the executive order.
“No longer will Tribes be faced with seemingly unnecessary and arbitrary limitations when they are accessing critical funding for public safety, infrastructure, education, energy, and much more.”
Biden also said he is backing an effort by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which is made up of six Nations — the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscarora Nation — to compete under its own flag in the 2028 Olympics in lacrosse.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy invented the sport more than 2,000 years ago.
“Their ancestors invented the game,” Biden said. “Their circumstances are unique, and they should be granted an exception to field their own team at the Olympics.”
The White House also announced more than 190 new co-stewardships with tribal nations to manage federal lands, waters and resources important to those tribes.
There is a co-stewardship agreement with the Department of Commerce, more than 70 co-stewardship agreements with Interior and more than 120 co-stewardship agreements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Biden administration announced early steps into a co-stewardship cleanup of a sacred site from nuclear waste. The tribal partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy will manage cleanup at Rattlesnake Mountain, or “Laliik,” in Washington state.
Meat processing grants
The summit also released a progress report that details various actions the Biden administration has taken to strengthen relationships with tribes and the federal government.
At the summit, USDA also announced a partnership to help restore and expand tribal bison. The agency is also announcing its first Indigenous Animals Meat Processing Grant for processing animals such as bison.
The White House also announced a final rule for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which will begin the process of returning Indigenous human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to tribal nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations.
“The regulatory changes streamline the requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify human remains and cultural items in their collections,” the White House said in a fact sheet.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, a former member of Congress from New Mexico and a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said in a statement that the final rule is important in giving Indigenous communities authority in the repatriation process.
“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is an essential tool for the safe return of sacred objects to the communities from which they were stolen,” she said. “Finalizing these changes is an important part of laying the groundwork for the healing of our people.”
Senate hearing on fentanyl crisis
Additionally, the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a Wednesday hearing about the fentanyl opioid crisis in Indigenous communities, where federal officials detailed how they were working with tribes to address the crisis.
“Native people have the highest overdose death rates from synthetic opioids when you compare them to other racial and ethic groups in Alaska alone,” the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said.
In early November, tribal leaders from the Lummi Nation in Washington state and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana detailed to senators on the same committee about how the fentanyl crisis was impacting Indigenous communities.
Republican Sen. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma said he has seen the fentanyl crisis play out in Indian Country, where he and his family live. Mullin is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
“It’s very personal to me,” he said.
Mullin, along with Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines, also criticized the Biden administration for its policies at the Southern border, arguing that fentanyl is coming into the U.S. from Mexico.
Daines asked one of the witnesses, Adam Cohen, the deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, if the Biden administration was doing enough at the Southern border.
“The fact that overdose rates are as high as they are in Indigenous communities is difficult,” Cohen said. “We are seizing record amounts of narcotics as it is coming across the border.”
Daines pressed him and asked if Border Patrol agents having to process claims of asylum took away from seizing illegal drugs at the border.
“I’m hesitant to conflate border security, immigration policy and narcotics trafficking,” Cohen said. “The fact that we are seizing as much as we are seizing is saving American lives, and that’s the metric.”
Daines said he thinks that is the “wrong metric to look at,” because of the high number of encounters with unauthorized people at the border.
Cohen said it was important for the Senate to pass the supplemental funding request to help tribal communities address the impacts of overdoses and the opioid epidemic. In that request, $250 million would go toward the Indian Health Service for prevention, treatment and recovery for addiction to opioids, Cohen said.
The $111 billion supplemental legislation, which is mainly global security for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, is currently at an impasse due to immigration changes that Republicans want.
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada said that of the 28 tribal communities in her state, not all have law enforcement.
“There’s not enough of them,” she said of law enforcement on tribal lands.
One of the witnesses, Glen Melville, the deputy director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said that the agency has had difficulty with recruiting.
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