Biden signs executive order to improve security and justice for Native Americans

Marking National Native American Heritage Month, President Joe Biden attended a Tribal Nations Summit on Monday, announcing new measures by his administration to protect tribal lands and bolster public safety.

The event marked the first summit since 2016 and was also the first hosted by the White House.

During the summit, Biden signed a new executive order directing the Departments of Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services to create a “comprehensive strategy to improve public safety and justice for Native Americans,” as well as addressing the “epidemic of missing and murdered natives,” according to the White House.

“Today, I call on federal officials to work with tribal nations on strategies to improve public safety and advance justice,” Biden said.

He also proposed a 20-year ban on federal oil and gas leases in the Chaco Canyon and surrounding areas of northwestern New Mexico, a sacred tribal site.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland introduced Biden, noting how she made history as the first Native American named to a Cabinet position.

“We are still here and we have a voice,” Haaland said.

Biden highlighted the impact of his first major legislative achievement, the US bailout, on tribal communities, noting that Native Americans have been disproportionately hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today, Native Americans have gone from being the most COVID-affected population to being one of the most COVID-vaccinated populations,” Biden said. “This success has a lot to do with tribal leadership, but it also has to do with the U.S. bailout, which included more than $31 billion — for tribal nations, the single largest investment in the history of the United States. Indian country, long awaited.”

The president highlighted the policies of the bipartisan infrastructure agreement that will impact tribal communities, which he is expected to sign on Monday afternoon.

“Everyone knows we’ve been waiting for major infrastructure investment for a long time, but no one knows that better than Indian Country,” Biden said. “Tribal lands have been chronically underfunded for generations, so I’m very proud to say that when I sign the bill outside on the South Lawn shortly, the biggest investment ever in the tribal infrastructure will take place, over $13 billion in direct investments in Indian Country, and tens of billions more in grants and future funding opportunities.”

Shannon Holsey, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Indian Band, praised Biden for organizing the summit and the measures he announced.

“I applaud this Administration’s commitment to upholding the United States’ trusted responsibility to our Tribal Nations by strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Indian Tribes, and working to give Tribal Nations the means to govern our own communities, to make our own decisions, and also for answering Indian Country’s call to appoint a Native American as Cabinet Secretary,” Holsey said in virtual remarks featuring Haaland.

Biden also announced a new initiative to increase tribal participation in federal land management and incorporate “tribal ecological knowledge” into climate change plans.

“These efforts, again, to use the word my dad would use a lot, are about dignity,” Biden said. “That’s the foundation of our Nation and Nation partnership, that’s what it’s all about.”

Biden signed the executive order following his remarks and was joined by first lady Jill Biden, Haaland, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The first lady addressed the top shortly after Biden signed the order.

Former President Barack Obama created the conference, but his successor, former President Donald Trump, did not host one. The name of the event was later changed from “conference” to “summit” to recognize the nation-to-nation relationship. Biden last addressed tribal leaders in 2014 at an Obama administration conference.

Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to address Native American leaders at the two-day summit on Tuesday.

Nohemi M. Moore