The day before he was confirmed as U.S. Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, D-Colo., sought to reassure tribal leaders that the Obama administration is serious about Native American issues and promised his department would work “hand in hand” with Indian communities.
In an address to more than 400 people at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City hotel here on Monday, Salazar promised that he and his boss, President-elect Barack Obama, would pay close attention to Indian Country and would listen to tribal leaders – unlike their predecessors.
“As we move forward to resolving those issues,” Salazar said, “we have to make sure that never again – like has happened in the last eight years – that the Native American community in the United States of America is left out of the tent.”
Salazar, whose Latino roots in Colorado go back generations, spoke to tribal leaders gathered for a strategy session hosted by the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association. The participants would spend much of the day discussing their legislative priorities in a meeting closed to the media, but, before they began their deliberations, Salazar showed up in what he said would be his only appearance before an organization until he is sworn into office.
‘Very High Priority Issue’
“I don’t want to over-promise what we’re going to do, but I’m going to tell you that it’s going to be a very high priority issue” to try and resolve some of those issues, Salazar said.
Among the most pressing legislative concerns are the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, trust reform that would overcome the tangle of land disputes now mired in the courts and bureaucracy, and the swift designation and confirmation of the assistant secretary for Indian affairs.
For his part, Salazar told the group he supported reauthorizing the health care bill and backing trust reform. He said he also had already selected the person who would focus on Native issues in the Interior Department but added that he could not yet divulge the person’s name, although Salazar predicted that tribal leaders would be “very proud” of the choice.
Judging by the crowd reaction, the audience seemed pleased overall with what they were hearing from the designated Cabinet member. During a speech that lasted less than 15 minutes, Salazar was interrupted a half dozen times by applause as he pledged from the outset to treat tribal leaders with respect. He added that he recognized their sovereign authority and would engage in a “spirit of consultation and cooperation to work hand-in-hand with all of our Indian communities to address the challenges of our times.”
Renewed Commitment to Economic Development
Afterward, Ernie Stevens Jr., chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, said he was impressed with Salazar’s talk and pointed to the secretary-designate’s stated commitment for renewed economic development in Indian Country. Salazar had promised to ensure that Native communities would share in any economic opportunities as the administration explored such alternative energy proposals as wind power, geothermal, and other energy sources.
Stevens said Salazar’s words were reassuring, especially to those tribes that have no gaming projects or other revenue sources to pursue.
The focus on economic development is key to Indian Country, Stevens said, and what is important to Indian Country is that the administration will be there to help. “It gives a message from a high-ranking official that we have to move in that direction,” Stevens added, “and it also says that they are willing to help us, and that’s a message that we haven’t really had.”
Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the former Colorado senator who introduced Salazar to the crowd, also said he was heartened — not only by his friend’s words but also by the crowd reaction. He expressed optimism that, with presidential backing, a new Indian health care bill would win reauthorization this time and that other thorny issues, such as trust reform and the Cobell class action lawsuit, could eventually be resolved.
“Now that the momentum has started, things should get easier,” Campbell said, “especially with Ken Salazar on the job. He understands the issues.”
Even some of those who missed Salazar’s talk were caught in the positive afterglow.
Teresa Germain, a Tlingit/Haida tribal council member in Juneau, said she arrived too late for Salazar’s talk but that the positive note seemed in keeping with what she has experienced this week as Inauguration Day neared. “There is just the overall feeling that everyone is coming together for this one event,” she said.
At the same time, however, Germain said tough issues remain in Indian Country, including her native Alaska where environmental problems, climate change, and an economic downturn have led to skyrocketing unemployment rates of more than 80 percent in some villages, threatening the livelihood of her communities. “A whole lot of our villages are dying,” she said.
It was indeed a day of both optimism as well as glimpses of a harsher reality for some tribal leaders who geared up for the inauguration of the man many believe will lead a change for the better, while also realizing that they must keep pushing for their beliefs – even among their allies and friends.
Native Civil Rights Struggles
Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, reminded everyone of that philosophy, saying it helped propel the civil rights movement forward, with the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose holiday was being celebrated on Monday, an example of someone not willing to settle for anything short of true civil rights. Garcia said that, while Natives have their own history of civil rights struggles and activism that are often forgotten, they can learn from King and his fellow activists who refused to remain silent.
Last week, in a telephone interview, Garcia voiced that view as he applauded Obama’s decision to name Salazar. It was a wonderful choice, Garcia said, adding with a laugh that tribal leaders were still “going to keep his feet to the fire, a friendly one.”
Garcia may have had that in mind when he thanked Salazar at the end of Monday’s talk and pressed him to agree to a meeting with tribal leaders. When the soon-to-be secretary did not answer immediately, Garcia pressed him – and then got in the last words over the microphone.
“He said he’ll do it,” Garcia told everyone to the final applause. “He said he’ll do it.”
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