Biden promises more respect, less red tape for tribes at Tribal Nations Summit


WASHINGTON — At a gathering of Indigenous nations hosted by the White House on Wednesday and Thursday, Northwest tribal leaders welcomed President Joe Biden's pledge to streamline federal grant programs and give tribes more autonomy in spending those funds.

In a speech Wednesday, Biden reiterated his commitment to respecting tribes' authority as sovereign nations and promised to keep working to "heal the wrongs of the past." He then signed an executive order aimed at reducing red tape and creating a central "clearinghouse" for all federal funding opportunities for tribes.

"We've made progress, but we know Indigenous communities still live in the shadows of the failed policies of the past," Biden said. "That's why I committed to working with you to write a new and better chapter in American history for Indian nations."

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council, said the changes to receiving and using federal funds are a promising step after tribes have been subject to an "insulting" level of federal oversight.

"I always feel like they're always looking over our shoulder, thinking that we're going to make the wrong decision," he said, adding that the tribe is the second-biggest employer in North Idaho and knows what's best for its members. "We don't need to have our hand held all the time anymore."

Biden also backed an effort by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to field a lacrosse team in the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when the sport their ancestors invented returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1948. Current rules wouldn't allow players from the nation, also known as the Iroquois, to compete under their own flag because it doesn't have a national Olympic committee, but the president called on the International Olympic Committee to grant an exception.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribal Council and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, said holding yearly summits has helped make "great progress" between tribal governments and federal agencies. It was the second in-person summit and third in total held by the Biden administration, which restored the gatherings begun by the Obama administration after they stopped under former president Donald Trump.

"Being consistent and putting on another White House Tribal Nations Summit was very welcome," Forsman said. "We know it was difficult for them, because the president is pretty busy right now — and the whole administration is very busy — but tribal priorities have been a bedrock part of his administration."

The two-day event took place at the headquarters of the Interior Department, a few blocks from the White House. Some tribal leaders took the opportunity to go across town to the Capitol, where Yakama Nation Councilman Jeremy Takala attended a Senate hearing Wednesday on improving coordination between tribal, federal, state and local law enforcement to combat the fentanyl crisis.

"I'm glad I got to attend that, because having that consistency in the same message is very important," Takala said. "And I think the other tribal leaders here throughout Indian country have been expressing that we're in a crisis and that's the obligation that the federal government has to supply those resources."

Partly because of federally imposed limits on the pay and benefits the tribe can offer to potential recruits, Takala said, the Yakama Nation has filled fewer than 30 of 76 law enforcement positions. They also face a complicated patchwork of jurisdiction on and around their reservation, which requires close coordination with other law enforcement agencies.

During a panel discussion Wednesday on conservation, Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, described the relationship between the federal government and each tribe with which it signed a treaty as two sides of the same coin.

"We're as obligated to the government as the government is obligated to us," he said. "On one side of the coin, you have the United States. On the other side, you have the Nez Perce. But we're minted of the same coin, for mutual benefit, and we come together under mutual agreement so that one side doesn't burden the other side, and that's what that relationship truly is about. We don't want to burden the United States of America by the things that we do, and we would expect the United States not to burden us."