At tribal summit, Biden pledges federal commitment to Indian Country

By: - December 3, 2022 7:00 am

The move announced Wednesday was part of a series of commitments made by the Biden administration to strengthen relationships and consultation between the federal government and First Nations. (Photo courtesy Justin McAffee)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said this week that he is poised to designate Avi Kwa Ame, a sacred site for Native American tribes in southern Nevada, as a national monument that would ensure the preservation of ancestral lands for those 12 tribes.

“I’m committed to protecting this sacred place that is central to the creation story of some many tribes,” Biden said during the second White House Tribal Nations Summit.

It was not an official designation, which tribal leaders pointed out, the Nevada Current reported.

The announcement took place Wednesday at the U.S. Department of Interior, where the president also announced economic, climate, and land management actions the administration is taking to foster a strong federal relationship with Indian Country.

Spirit Mountain, named Avi Kwa Ame by the Mojave tribe, is considered sacred to 10 Yuman-speaking tribes, and the Hopi and Chemehuevi Paiute tribes, because the area is the center of the Yuman tribe’s creation story and ancestral lands.

Those Yuman- speaking tribes are the Mojave, Hualapai, Yavapai, Havasupai, Quechan, Maricopa, Pai Pai, Halchidhoma, Cocopah, and Kumeyaay.

Local leaders and tribes have petitioned for the land to become a national monument to ensure its protection.

“The Yuman Tribes believe the mountain is the spiritual birthplace of the tribes, the place where ancient ancestors emerged into this world,” according to the petition.

Biden added that he looked forward to visiting the site in person and said he plans to make an official presidential visit to Indian Country but did not elaborate on when that would take place.

He thanked the Democratic members of the Nevada congressional delegation — Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen and Reps. Dina Titus, Susie Lee, and Steven Horsford — for their involvement in lobbying for a national monument designation for Avi Kwa Ame.

In a statement, Cortez Masto said that the land sacred to a dozen tribes is a “critical habitat for a wide range of wildlife, provides world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, and contains some of the most stunning landscapes in Nevada.”

“Across Nevada, this national monument has widespread support and is a key part of our work to protect our environmental and cultural resources,” she said.

Tribal summit

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, outlined at the tribal summit some of the commitments and investments the Biden administration has made in Indian Country.

She said her agency and the federal government were committed to addressing intergenerational trauma in Indian Country, ensuring that Native American children are able to learn their ancestral languages in schools, and providing access to $13 billion in federal funding through the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

More than 13% of tribal homes lack access to water or sanitation, compared to fewer than 1% of U.S. households. Many Native Americans have to rely on water trucks brought onto reservations.

Haaland said she was pleased to work with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to ensure that Native American youth have access to their culture and the preservation of tribal languages.

“Our children deserve to inherit the knowledge our ancestors sought to pass down,” she said.

Haaland added that the Interior Department has invested more than $45 billion in Indian Country from the American Rescue Plan, the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

“This agency once charged with assimilating our people through family separation is now leading the work to heal those broken promises and to strengthen Indian Country,” she said.

Administration initiatives

Biden said he was proud of Haaland’s work at the agency and highlighted some initiatives the White House was putting in place.

Some of those actions include a new memorandum that Biden is signing that would set guidelines across all federal agencies regarding tribal consultations and increase tribal participation in the management and stewardship of federal lands and waters significant to those communities. This agreement between Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture would be a co-stewardship.

Biden added that other top priorities include climate resiliency, as some tribes “are at risk of being washed away” due to climate change, and investigations into missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“The spirit of friendship, stewardship, and respect have taken too long for us to recognize … and it’s the only way to move forward,” Biden said.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced initiatives the agency is taking to help Indian Country.

“We continue to make our programs and services more accessible and include Indigenous viewpoints in program design and delivery,” Vilsack said in a statement.

The agency will form a permanent Tribal Advisory Committee, which will advise the USDA secretary on issues important to tribal producers. Applications for that committee will be open in the coming weeks, Vilsack said.

USDA is working to improve broadband issues through the ReConnect Program, which provides grants and loans for communities to construct infrastructure needed for broadband, to increase tribal access to high-speed internet.

The agency will partner with Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in North Dakota for research about the integration of Western and Indigenous knowledge about Indigenous plants that are important to local tribes in the region.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.