Tribal Nations Conference slated for Wednesday

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2013

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President Barack Obama on Wednesday, Nov. 13, will host the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of the Interior.

The day-long conference, part of Obama's commitment to interact directly with tribes, strengthen government-to-government agreements and improve the lives of American Indians, is the fifth to be held during the five years Obama has served as president. It is open to one representative from each of the 566 federally recognized tribes.

"It's a chance to talk to the cabinet secretaries," said Navajo President Ben Shelly, who plans to attend this year's conference. "We can go in with a plan, a proposal, and talk directly with the federal government."

Although the conference was established under former President Bill Clinton, Obama is the only president to host the conference every year. Clinton in 2000 signed an executive order to facilitate more communication with tribes. Nine years later, during his first Tribal Nations Conference, Obama signed an additional order that required all cabinet agencies to submit detailed plans to improve relations with tribes. That conference, in 2009, was the largest gathering of tribal leaders in the nation's history.

"The president cuts out time for the conference from his day, from his schedule," said Clara Pratte, executive director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office. "That shows how important this is. It's nice to keep Indian Country involved at the highest level of government."

The annual conference continues to bring more members of the president's cabinet into one building than any other event. During last year's conference, secretaries of a dozen federal departments addressed tribal leaders, offering reports of progress in Indian Country and soliciting input.

Obama in June created the White House Council on Native American Affairs, which comprises leaders of 30 federal departments and agencies. The council is charged with making policy recommendations and organizing the White House Tribal Nations Conference. According to a news release from the White House, council members will be on hand Wednesday to meet with tribal leaders.

"It's a very positive thing for Indian Country," Pratte said. "In general, the Obama Administration is trying to improve relationships between the government and the 566 tribal nations."


Tribal leaders also can sign up for break-out sessions during which they can meet directly with federal employees and discuss topics like health care, natural resources, law enforcement or government-to-government relationships.

Shelly identified three topics he wants to discuss: strengthening tribal economies, supporting self-determination and developing infrastructure. These break-out sessions are closed to the press.

Shelly also wants to start a dialogue about energy policies, ongoing trust litigations and petitions to the Supreme Court for recognition of tribal sovereignty.

"We need to use energy as a tool to our advantage, to create jobs and build the economy," he said. "We also need the right to self-determination to regulate ourselves and move forward."

The six-hour conference is brief but packed with information, Pratte said.

"I think the administration is really trying to do as much as it can in so short of a time," she said. "The power is really in the follow-up that occurs afterward."

The conference runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and will end with Obama's address.

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