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White House releases tribal nations progress report

January 13th | Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder Print this article   Email this article  

It's a renewed era of federal-tribal relations, according to the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference progress report released earlier this month.

"After almost eight years as your president, I have been so privileged to learn from you and spend time with many of you while visiting more tribal communities than any other president," President Barack Obama said to the conference on Sept. 29, 2016.

The report, issued by the Executive Office of the President, outlines some of the cooperative and collaborative work done between the Obama administration and tribal entities over the last eight years.

"While the administration and tribes have partnered for historic achievements, there is still much more to do," the report states.

Following that line of thinking, the report's authors note it is meant to be used as a "baseline of progress for tribal nations to reference in their ongoing work with the federal government."

"Because I pledged to all of you when I first ran for president that I'd be a partner with all of you in the spirit of a true nation-to-nation relationship, to give all our children the future they deserve," Obama said before the conference last year. "And by creating the White House Council of Native American Affairs, we created a permanent institution with a long-term, Cabinet-level focus on Indian Country, one that involves you through the decision-making process."

The report comes at the end of the president's two-term tenure in office, during which time he has brought attention to issues and accomplishments in Indian Country, Hawaii, and Alaska. However, along with the attention has come criticism from many who live within these areas of focus.

In a recent release from Alaska Gov. Bill Walker on legislation introduced to slow down the designation of national monuments on federal lands and waters around Alaska, the governor critiqued the Obama administration's handling of protected areas.

"We have seen too many disappointing decisions from the outgoing administration recently," Walker wrote in the release on Jan. 5. "Efforts to lock up Alaska's public land inhibit our ability to responsibly develop our resources."

During his lame duck period, the president and his administration have made a number of controversial moves including removing most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas from future oil and gas leasing, a decision that was widely denounced by state and local leaders, and creating the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area, which was lauded by tribal members with the Bering Sea Elders Group from along the state's western coast.

Outside of Alaska, the Obama Administration has been criticized for what has been seen as a weak response to the Dakota Access Pipeline issue, but supported in terms of efforts to engage Native youth.

While the White House report presents what it considers predominantly successes, there have been alternative views on some of what is contained therein.

Among the steps lauded within the report is the creation of the White House Council on Native American Affairs which is currently chaired by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and is meant to coordinate an interagency approach to working with tribal leaders.

Within that are subgroups for economic development and infrastructure; health; education and Native youth; energy; environment, climate change, and natural resources; and public safety and justice.

The administration has created a number of opportunities for Native youth engagement, including the Generation Indigenous, or Gen-I, program, in which a handful of youth from across the Northwest Arctic and North Slope have participated.

Specific to Alaska, there have been efforts to give rural and Arctic youth a platform to discuss issues important to them, like the Arctic Youth Ambassadors program, which includes many students from around the region and beyond.

Over the last several months, several federal funding opportunities have been announced for the state, especially for rural areas and the development of their water, sewer, and infrastructure projects.

"Rural Development within the U.S. Department of Agriculture invested over $3.4 billion in tribal housing, tribal infrastructure, tribal economic development, and tribal utility development during the Obama administration," the report noted. "This represents a marked increase in the pace of investment as in the preceding eight fiscal years when $1.7 billion was invested in Indian Country and Alaska through the same programs."

It went on to note that loan and grant programs had gone to fund tribal schools, broadband infrastructure, medical facilities, and housing.

In December 2016, Health and Human Services released the National Tribal Behavioral Health Agenda. According to the report, it is the first tribal-federal agenda made in response to requests from tribal leaders for "improved collaboration with federal agencies who hold responsibility for addressing and/or responding to the impacts of mental and substance use disorders."

The agenda was made in cooperation with tribes and their members and in collaboration with the National Indian Health Board.

It also includes a section known as the American Indian and Alaska Native Cultural Wisdom Declaration, which acknowledges the importance of traditional knowledge and practice to tribal community health.

Land issues and land rights are a focus of the report, which notes that the recent administration has worked to make it easier for tribes to take land into trust, something the state is divided over with regard to its own lands.

The report also notes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Native American Policy update, meant to revise the ways in which tribes are able to work with the service on public lands.

"Additionally, the Alaska Region of the USFWS is developing a companion step-down policy for its many unique mandates and relationship to Alaska Native people," the report states.

The report acknowledges there is still work to be done to develop government-to-government relationships with tribes across the country, including within Alaska.

"... When tribal nations and the federal government work together in a true spirit of nation-to-nation cooperation, a momentous level of progress is achievable," the report notes.

For residents of the Arctic, the Obama administration leaves behind a complex and complicated legacy, from the president's visit to Kotzebue in 2015 to the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council to the protections for lands, waters, and wildlife that have stirred up emotions on both sides of the aisle. With the administration of President-elect Donald Trump gearing up to take office later this month, the region is now waiting to see what lies ahead.

The full tribal nations conference progress report can be found online at

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at


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