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Echo Hawk: Restoring the trust
By Larry Echo Hawk
Story Published: Oct 26, 2010
It is difficult to believe that we are already nearing the halfway mark of President Barack Obama’s first term in office. I have been honored to serve on behalf of President Obama as the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs over the past 16 months. When I accepted the president’s call to service, I pledged to do several things: Restore stability to an office that had seen too many occupants in recent years; make the department accessible to Indian country; and, accomplish meaningful change on issues important to tribal nations.
Under President Obama’s and Secretary Salazar’s leadership, we are honoring that pledge by ushering in a new era of federal Indian policy, an era in which the United States restores its obligation to tribal nations by fulfilling tribal needs that have gone unmet in the past.
The president set the foundation for this work by hosting the historic Tribal Nations Summit on Nov. 5, 2009, when he signed the Presidential Memorandum reinforcing the federal government’s obligation to consult with tribal nations.
We have since taken action to implement and refine the consultation process, and the counsel provided by Indian country has already had an impact on federal policy in a number of areas.
Together with Secretary Salazar, I established an agenda that begins the work of restoring our obligation to Indian country. This agenda focuses on restoring tribal land bases, improving public safety and education in Indian country, along with aiding tribes in economic development.
The president, the secretary, and I recognize the interconnected nature of these priorities.
As a first step, we worked to restore our financial commitment to Indian country by coordinating the infusion of more than $816.5 million to Indian country under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and dramatically increasing funding for Indian Affairs in the president’s budget request.
Next, we decided to change leadership within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. I appointed new directors to each of those bureaus – Mike Black in the BIA, and Keith Moore in the BIE – along with a new director of the Office of Justice Services within the BIA, Darren Cruzan.
Our team understands that restoration of tribal land bases is central to our agenda. When I arrived at the Department of the Interior, it became immediately apparent that fee-to-trust acquisitions were not being processed in a timely manner. In 2007 and 2008, the department acquired only 15,000 acres in trust on behalf of tribes. In 2009, and the first three quarters of 2010, the department has acquired more than 34,000 acres of land in trust on behalf of tribal nations – a 225 percent increase. We are continuing to improve this process by bringing uniformity to trust acquisitions and increasing communication between staff and tribal leaders.
In addition to our fee-to-trust initiative, my team is working to overhaul the department’s regulations governing leasing on Indian lands. These changes will mark the most substantial changes to leasing on tribal lands in 50 years. The new regulations will streamline the leasing process and restore greater tribal control over land use.
Improved public safety in Indian country is important to establish a climate where students can focus on their education and economic growth can take root. That is why we launched the most aggressive recruiting and hiring effort for BIA officers in history, to bridge the serious gap in officer staffing in Indian country.
Last year, the department saw a net gain of only two officers; but in 2010, we have already hired 84 officers. Some of these officers are already working in our communities and others will soon follow as their training and placement is completed. We are committed to filling all remaining officer vacancies.
We have also made changes to improve the graduation rate of the Indian Police Academy using a rigorous training curriculum focused on rural-policing, and improved the pay rate for our officers.
My office will be working in close coordination with tribes to implement the Tribal Law and Order Act. We held a series of public safety consultations in April and June, and are undertaking renewed consultations at this time.
We have also made strides in improving the delivery of education to Indian country, both within the BIE’s 183 schools and two universities that serve more than 42,000 Indian students, and within the traditional public school system that serves 95 percent of Indian students.
This year, I participated in the summit with Secretary Salazar, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and national experts in Indian education at which we discussed the challenges facing Indian students. We have captured the momentum generated by that historic meeting to forge a collaborative partnership with the Department of Education to address the many needs of Indian students.
The BIE has expanded the Family and Child Education program across 10 states. FACE is a family literacy program serving families and children from prenatal to 5 years of age by integrating language and culture of the community it serves.
We have completed several new school construction projects, which will provide many of our students with safer, state-of-the-art learning environments.
On economic development, our team is focused on getting back to basics, and doing the things that improve the opportunity for economic development in Indian country. We recognize that tribes, not the BIA, will drive economic growth in Indian country.
We plan to conduct executive training sessions with senior leadership within the BIA and the BIE to get them in a 21st century mindset to aid tribes in creating jobs in Indian country. We are also working to hire the first-ever economist within my office to help us maximize the impact of our actions on Indian country economic development.
We have taken major action in other areas as well, including: Changing the Indian Reservation Roads Program to ensure that funding is directed to tribes most in need of support; changing Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act regulations to protect tribal rights on culturally unidentifiable remains; and, increasing funding for the protection of tribal treaty rights.
Our work is far from complete. We are moving to process gaming applications, and to quickly complete our consultation sessions on gaming policy regarding two-part applications. We are working with Congress to enact a Carcieri fix that reaffirms the United States’ authority to acquire land in trust on behalf of all tribes. We are also working to support enactment of the HEARTH Act, which would restore tribal control over residential and business leasing on tribal lands.
Our work to restore the trust requires a robust and national dialogue among tribes and the administration, which is why I have traveled across Indian country to meet with many of you.
I am grateful for your patience, support and guidance these past 16 months, and I look forward to working with Indian country leaders to complete this work over the coming years.
Larry Echo Hawk is the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of Interior.
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