President Obama opening remarks at tribal summit
The following is a transcript of remarks by President Barack Obama during the opening of the White House Tribal Nations Conference, November 5. Provided by the White House.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Please, everybody have a seat. Thank you to Jefferson Keel, thanks for the wonderful introduction; to Clarence Jackson for the invocation. Good morning to all of you. I am honored to be with you today at this unique and historic event, the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders in our history. (Applause.) And I am so grateful to many members of Congress who could join us today, along with several members of my Cabinet who will be participating in this conference today.

You know, a couple of summers ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Crow Nation in Montana. And while I was there, I was adopted into the nation by a wonderful couple, Hartford and Mary Black Eagle. I know what they're saying now: "Kids grow up so fast." (Laughter.) Only in America could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States. (Applause.)

It's now been a year since the American people went to the polls and gave me this extraordinary privilege and responsibility. And part of what accounts for the hope people felt on that day, I think, was a sense that we had an opportunity to change the way Washington worked; a chance to make our federal government the servant not of special interests, but of the American people. It was a sense that we had an opportunity to bring about meaningful change for those who had for too long been excluded from the American Dream.

And few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans -- our First Americans.

We know the history that we share. It's a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation. Treaties were violated. Promises were broken. You were told your lands, your religion, your cultures, your languages were not yours to keep. And that's a history that we've got to acknowledge if we are to move forward.

We also know our more recent history; one in which too often, Washington thought it knew what was best for you. There was too little consultation between governments. And that's a major reason why things are the way they are today. Some of your reservations face unemployment rates of up to 80 percent. Roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live in poverty. More than 14 percent of all reservation homes don't have electricity; and 12 percent don't have access to a safe water supply. In some reservations as many as 20 people live together just to get by. Without real communication and consultation, we're stuck year after year with policies that don't work on issues specific to you and on broader issues that affect all of us. And you deserve to have a voice in both.

I know that you may be skeptical that this time will be any different. You have every right to be and nobody would have blamed you if you didn't come today. But you did. And I know what an extraordinary leap of faith that is on your part.

And that's why I want you to know that I'm absolutely committed to moving forward with you and forging a new and better future together. It's a commitment that's deeper than our unique nation-to-nation relationship. It's a commitment to getting this relationship right, so that you can be full partners in the American economy, and so your children and your grandchildren can have a equal shot at pursuing the American Dream. And that begins by fulfilling the promises I made to you during my campaign.

I promised you a voice on my senior staff in the White House so that you'd have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about your lives, your nations, and your people. And that's why I appointed Kimberly Teehee of the Cherokee Nation as my Native American policy advisor; and Jodi Gillette of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to work directly with all of you. (Applause.) That's why Secretary Salazar and I selected Larry Echo Hawk of the Pawnee Nation to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs here at Interior. And they are doing great work so far.

I also told you that we'd shake up the bureaucracy and get policymakers out of Washington so they could hear directly from you about your hopes, your dreams, and the obstacles that keep you from pursuing them. Secretary Salazar in particular has helped lead a comprehensive outreach to tribal communities; and Attorney General Eric Holder, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, along with several members of my staff, have held listening sessions on American Indian and Alaska Native issues around the country and at the White House.

I promised you we'd host this conference to develop an agenda that works for your communities because I believe Washington can't -- and shouldn't -- dictate a policy agenda for Indian Country. Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions. That's why we're here today.

And I want to be clear about this: Today's summit is not lip service. We're not going to go through the motions and pay tribute to one another, and then furl up the flags and go our separate ways. Today's sessions are part of a lasting conversation that's crucial to our shared future.

Now, Secretary Salazar and Assistant Secretary Echo Hawk are among the best advocates you could have in Washington, and this department is doing fantastic work under their leadership. But being good partners with tribal nations is a responsibility we've all got to take on. And that's why representatives of multiple agencies are here today -- because if we're going to address the needs of Native Americans in a comprehensive way, then we've got to mount a comprehensive response.

A major step toward living up to that responsibility is the presidential memorandum that I'll be signing at this desk in just a few moments. In the final years of his administration, President Clinton issued an executive order establishing regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration between your nations and the federal government. But over the past nine years, only a few agencies have made an effort to implement that executive order -- and it's time for that to change. (Applause.)

The memorandum I'll sign directs every Cabinet agency to give me a detailed plan within 90 days of how -- the full implementation of that executive order and how we're going to improve tribal consultation. (Applause.) After all, there are challenges we can only solve by working together, and we face a serious set of issues right now.

We face our economic crisis, in which we took bold and swift action, including in your communities. We allocated more than $3 billion of the Recovery Act to help with some of your most pressing needs, like rebuilding and renovating schools on reservations across the country. We provided more than $100 million in loans to spur job creation in tribal economies. And we made sure my budget included significant increases in funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and other agencies that have critical roles to play in your communities. (Applause.)

But if we're going to bring real and lasting change for Native Americans, we need a comprehensive strategy, as I said before. Part of that strategy is health care. We know that as long as Native Americans die of illnesses like tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, pneumonia, and influenza at far higher rates than the rest of the population, then we're going to have to do more to address disparities in health care delivery.

More than half of all Native Americans and Alaska Natives, especially those in remote areas with limited access to care, rely on the Indian Health Service for their most basic needs. And that's why we invested $500 million under the Recovery Act in strengthening and modernizing the IHS, and that's why my budget proposes a increase of 13 percent in IHS funding. (Applause.)

We're also closer than ever to passing health insurance reform that will finally make quality insurance affordable to all Americans who don't have coverage, and finally offer stability and security to Americans who do -- and that includes our First Americans. (Applause.)

When it comes to creating jobs, closing the opportunity gap, and leaving something better for our future generations, few areas hold as much promise as clean energy. Up to 15 percent of our potential wind energy resources are on Native American land, and the potential for solar energy is even higher. But too often, you face unique hurdles to developing these renewable resources. That's why I'm very proud, under Secretary Salazar's leadership, we're looking for new opportunities to ensure that you have a say in planning for access to the transmission grid. We're streamlining and expediting the permit process for energy development and transmission across tribal lands. We are securing tribal access to financing and investments for new energy projects. And thanks to the Recovery Act, we've established an Energy Auditor Training Program that could prepare Native Americans for the green jobs of the future. And that's going to be absolutely important. (Applause.)

But the future of Indian Country rests on something more: the education we provide our children. (Applause.) We know that Native Americans face some of the lowest matriculation rates and highest high school and college dropout rates. That's why the Recovery Act also included $170 million for Indian education -- (applause) -- and $277 million for Indian school construction. And that's why my budget provided $50 million in advanced funding for tribal colleges that are often economic lifelines for a community. (Applause.) Students who study at a tribal college are eight times less likely to drop out of higher education, they continue on to a four-year institution at a higher rate than students in community colleges, and nearly 80 percent end up in careers that help their tribal nation.

And none of our efforts will take root if we can't even guarantee that our communities are safe -- safe places to learn, safe places to grow, safe places to thrive. And on some reservations, violent crime is more than 20 times the national average. The shocking and contemptible fact that one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes is an assault on our national conscience that we can no longer ignore. (Applause.)

So tribes need support in strengthening their law enforcement capability. They need better resources and more training. And my administration fully appreciates the complexity and challenges you face when it comes to the criminal justice system on tribal lands. But we need to have a serious conversation with regard to all aspects of your public safety, and that's a conversation my administration is committed to doing. (Applause.)

So this is a challenge we take very seriously. The Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services are all working on ways to empower tribal governments to ensure greater safety in their own communities, and I want to particularly commend Attorney General Eric Holder for his efforts on this so far. I also strongly support the Tribal Law and Order Act, and I thank Chairman Dorgan and Representative Herseth-Sandlin for their leadership on this issue. And I look forward to Congress passing it so I can sign it into law. (Applause.)

So there's a lot of work to be done today. But before we get at it, I want to close with this. I know you've heard this song from Washington before. I know you've often heard grand promises that sound good but rarely materialize. And each time, you're told this time will be different. But over the last few years, I've had a chance to speak with Native American leaders across the country about the challenges you face, and those conversations have been deeply important to me.

I get it. I'm on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider. I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two years old, leaving her -- my mother and my grandparents to raise me. We didn't have much. We moved around a lot. So even though our experiences are different, I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House. (Applause.) All right. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Together, working together, we're going to make sure that the First Americans, along with all Americans, get the opportunities they deserve. So with that, if I'm not mistaken, I am in a position now to start signing this memorandum, and then we're going to do a little Q&A. So get everything set up -- how many pens do you want me to use? Eight pens. (Laughter.) I don't know who's getting the pens, but --

(The memorandum is signed.)

THE PRESIDENT: This is harder than it looks. (Laughter.) There you go. (Applause.)

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