Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell catches up with Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Larry Roberts at the National Congress of American Indian’s mid-year convention in Spokane in June.
Kara Briggs
Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell catches up with Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs Larry Roberts at the National Congress of American Indian’s mid-year convention in Spokane in June.

Sec. Jewell and Obama Administration Racing Clock on Indigenous Issues

Kara Briggs
8/29/16

Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell, who in her three-and-a-half years in office has visited tribes across the U.S., urged leaders at the National Congress of American Indian’s mid-year convention in Spokane in June to keep the pressure on the United States—especially as the Obama Administration enters its final months.

At the top levels of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Jewell said staff is working to clarify and nail down Indian policies and guidelines from Indian child welfare to water settlements so that the Administration’s progressive policies and cooperative approach to tribes will continue.

“Unless a future president intentionally undoes this, and I know that you would make that very uncomfortable, President Obama’s executive orders and tribal nation meetings will continue,” she said.

Jewell was president and CEO of REI, the Seattle-based outdoor retailer, when Obama tapped her in 2013 to become just the second woman to lead Interior. A banker by trade, Jewell now oversees the nation’s lands and natural resources. She has visited 40 tribes, and became deeply engaged in the reform of the Bureau of Indian Education, leading her to pledge to NCAI participants that she would continue her advocacy for Native youth—even when she leaves office.

“Secretary Jewell has shown a commitment to Native issues, specifically Native youth,” NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said. “It is heartening to know that she has made a commitment to be a continued voice for our children, families and future generations.”

For tribes, the progress of this administration has to be balanced against the enormity of history, as NCAI said in a statement responding to Jewell’s speech which covered the breadth of Obama’s approach to Indian country. It wasn’t lost on the Secretary how much “unfinished business” remains to be done, as she told tribal leaders how critical it is to “hear your voices on the Hill.”

Soon after she came to D.C., President Obama had her chair the cabinet level White House Council on Native Americans. Jewell still goes to those meetings, where senior agency staff collaborate on the federal relationship with tribes. While the council was founded in the Clinton Administration, it wasn’t elevated until President Obama required every federal department and agency to consult with tribes. Now, senior BIA staff say the council gets stuff done.

“My boss is all in,” Jewell said of Obama. “Our North Star is self determination and self governance in upholding our promises to you.”

For Jewell the focus on tribes has taken on a bigger role, she tracks partnerships such as between National Institute of Science researchers studying climate and tribal scientists and culture bearers are key in the future, in what she called “this time of climate change.” Of particular importance, she said, is water across the West as the climate warms the water threatening Northwest salmon runs and producing extreme heat stresses the Southwest.

Referencing Pope Francis’s recent encyclical “Laudato Si’ about the environment and the critical role of indigenous people in protecting the earth, she observed, “There is an awakening around the world to the importance of indigenous knowledge especially as we face climate change.”

Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, has watched up close the work of the Obama Administration, its annual meeting with tribal leaders, and its two Interior secretaries: Ken Salazar who was a big early mover in implementing the Cobell Settlement, and now Jewell under whose watch the BIE has empowered its director to better serve Indian schools whether they are Bureau or tribally run. The federal dollars to repair and replace Indian schools has started flowing—even if only the 2004 project list.

Cladoosby said, “Secretary Jewell shows that when people visit Indian country and get to know our work, they see that our communities, tribes, and youth are worth investing in.”

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