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Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior
Biden administration relaunches White House Council on Native American Affairs
Thursday, April 15, 2021

This is a developing story and this post will be updated throughout the day.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Joe Biden administration is relaunching the White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA) as it seeks to strengthen the federal government’s relationship with tribal nations.

The first meeting of the revived council takes place next week. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is making history as the first Native person in a presidential cabinet, will serve as chair of the U.S. government-wide initiative.

“The White House Council on Native American Affairs represents an important commitment to strengthen Tribal sovereignty, uphold our commitment to Tribal Nations, and honor the United States’ nation-to-nation relationships,” said Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, in a statement provided first to Indianz.Com.

“Addressing the systemic inequities that impact Indigenous peoples is the responsibility of every federal agency that will require an all-of-government approach across the Administration,” added Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, an Indian nation based in New Mexico.

Susan Rice, who serves as Domestic Policy Advisor at the White House, is also taking part in the first meeting of the WHCNAA on April 23. Addressing climate change, racial equity, economic recovery, as well as improving COVID-19 response efforts in the United States, are among the top priorities of the Biden team.

“The White House Council on Native American Affairs will maximize federal efforts to support Tribal Nations as they tackle pressing issues, such as COVID-19 response, reopening schools and rebuilding Tribal economic development,” said Rice, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“This inter-agency Council reinforces the Administration’s support for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance and will help to fulfill the Federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations,” said Rice.

The meeting marks the first concrete action for the WHCNAA in more than four years. The council was created during the Barack Obama administration, when Biden served as vice president, and helped connect tribal leaders with federal officials who make decisions that impact the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

But all of the work fell flat after Donald Trump became president. Although he attempted to revive the WHCNAA during the last year of his only term in office, the federal government employee assigned to the body was pushed out of the White House and the effort never got off the ground.

The situation is changing with Biden in the White House. During his first week in office, he issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies to improve their tribal consultation policies, with the goal of strengthening the “nation-to-nation relationships” between tribal governments and the U.S.

“That’s the new Biden policy — it’s nation to nation,” said Mark Van Norman, an attorney and citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who has served in federal government, in hailing the significance of the president’s actions.

“The nation-to-nation order gives new life to the president’s nation-to-nation policy because it’s going back to the original language of the treaties,” added Van Norman, who has participated in meetings with the new White House team on behalf of tribes who are eager to see their treaties upheld and affirmed by the United States.

Indianz.Com Video: President Joe Biden: Tribal consultation and strengthening nation-to-nation relationships – January 26, 2021

Since Biden’s January 26 order, a slew of federal agencies have engaged in talks with tribes about improving their consultation policies. The Department of the Interior, the Indian Health Service and the Department of the Treasury are among those that have heard from tribal leaders about ways to improve programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“Meaningful consultation on the full range of public policy impacting Indian Country is vital to tribal government,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. of the Cherokee Nation said of Biden’s efforts.

“Consultation means that tribes have a genuine seat at the table to shape public policy, to raise questions and concerns and to hold federal agencies and officials accountable,” said Hoskin.

Biden’s directive has even been extended to branches of the U.S. government that have not traditionally worked with Indian Country. The White House Office of Management and Budget, which plays a key role in a wide range of matters, from hiring of federal employees to rolling out the federal budget, held its first ever tribal consultations earlier this month.

The State Department did the same on Monday. The outreach was historic, as the U.S. agency that handles foreign policy has typically not worked directly with Indian nations on a government-to-government basis.

“Consultation is a two-way street,” President Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of American Indians said during a webinar last month on the need to improve U.S. policies.

“Yes, we can sit and respond and react to the many Dear Tribal Leader letters that we’re going to receive to trigger consultation but we also need to understand that that works the other way,” Sharp continued.

“We can set the agenda, we can trigger consultation on the issues that we would like to talk about at a date and a time and a place that we want to engage,” added Sharp.

The meeting of the White House Council on Native American Affairs next week will take place virtually. It is not open to the media.

“Reviving the Council sends a strong signal that this administration is committed to hearing from Native leaders and supporting Native communities,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who is serving as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs during the 117th Congress.

“This Council will ensure Tribal consultation continues to guide federal decision-making and facilitate a whole-of-government approach to addressing Tribal priorities,” Schatz said. “I look forward to working with the Council on our shared commitment to upholding our federal trust and treaty responsibility to sovereign Tribal Nations and Native communities.”

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