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Vice President Joe Biden reflects on triumphs of Obama's Indian policies

From left; Tony Abeyta, Crystal Worl, Vice President Joe Biden, Courtney Leonard, Jeff Kahm and Dan Namingha pose at the official residence of the vice president in Washington, D.C., on October 27, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

Vice President Joe Biden shared the works of Native artists with the world on Tuesday night as he reflected on some of the successes of the Obama administration's pro-tribal policies.

Through the Art in Embassies Program, five contemporary Native artists will be featured at diplomatic outposts around the globe. Tony Abeyta (Navajo), Jeff Kahm (Plains Cree), Courtney Leonard (Shinnecock), Dan Namingha (Hopi), Crystal Worl (Tlingit and Athabascan) created special pieces that were unveiled during a reception at Biden's residence in Washington, D.C.

"It is the one thing that is uniquely different in the minds of people from other countries," Biden said of the response he has seen to Native art during his travels around the world.

The five artists are all alumni of the Institute of American Indian Arts, a tribal college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The State Department is creating 50 prints of their works to help connect the first Americans to the global community.

"Infinite Wisdom" by Tony Abeyta. Photo and image from Art in Embassies / Facebook

"As ambassadors will tell you, guests to our embassies -- the thing they most gravitate to is the art we display," the vice president said.

But "it's not just the art," Biden quickly added. He said he takes great pride in the efforts President Barack Obama has taken to advance tribal sovereignty and self-determination.

"More than any administration, we have tried very hard -- Barack and I -- to strengthen the relationships between our nations," Biden said.

"I've supported tribal sovereignty my entire career and self-determination my entire career," Biden added. "We know and mean and use the phrase 'Indian nations.'"

"Converse" by Jeff Kahm. Photo and image from Art in Embassies / Facebook

One example of the improved relationship is the Violence Against Women Act of 2013. The law recognizes tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians but Biden said the historic provision wasn't an easy sell on Capitol Hill.

"At first we had great difficulty convincing our skeptics that we should allow for increased sovereignty within Indian nations -- to be able to investigate, prosecute and convict and sentence those who engage in violence against women on Indian lands," said Biden, who was the original sponsor of VAWA when he served in the Senate. The bill cleared Congress after a strong lobbying effort from Native women, tribal leaders and the White House.

Biden also said Obama was "devoted" to ensuring that Indian Country was included in the Affordable Care Act. Beyond expanding health coverage options for American Indians and Alaska Natives, the 2010 law permanently authorizes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to give tribes more flexibility to administer health care funds and to authorize new programs at the Indian Health Service.

On an emerging issue, Biden said the administration is focusing on climate change. Obama recently spent three days in Alaska, where he met with tribal leaders and Native residents who are worried about rising sea levels, dwindling supplies of subsistence foods and losing their way of life.

"Blue Blood" by Courtney Leonard. Photo and image from Art in Embassies / Facebook

"That is a real and major threat to your sacred places and to all that you hold dear," Biden said of climate change.

Native people are the first to feel the effects of changes in the environment, the vice president added, something he said he learned by working closely with the late Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who was one of Indian Country's strongest advocates.

Finally, Biden touted the launch of Generation Indigenous, which focuses on issues facing American Indian and Alaska Native youth. More than 1,000 met in D.C. in July for the historic White House Tribal Youth Gathering, where they heard from First Lady Michelle Obama and several Cabinet officials.

Biden said the goal of Generation Indigenous is "to make sure the voices of Native American young people are heard in our policies on education, on jobs, on the environment, housing and juvenile justice."

"Hopi Montage" by Dan Namingha. Photo and image from Art in Embassies / Facebook

Through these and other efforts, Biden said the administration was trying to reverse decades of policies that have carried a negative impact in Indian Country.

"I hope we're finally beginning to make up for well over a century of not very good stewardship," Biden said.

"The art we are showcasing today here is a testament to the rich, very rich, Native American culture and reflective of the deep commitment that we have," he added, "to finally beginning to get it right."

"It's taken a long time," Biden concluded. "There's a lot more work to do."

"Into Water" by Crystal Worl. Photo and image from Art in Embassies / Facebook

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