Building a new era of engagement between tribal nations and the federal government

The Biden administration is working to build better ties between the federal government and tribal nations.

Deb Haaland and Susan Rice
Opinion contributors

When President Joe Biden took office at the height of the pandemic, tribal nations were in crisis. Indigenous people were contracting the virus at over three times the rate of white Americans. Schools and tribal economic operations had shuttered, bringing local economies to a halt. Longstanding disparities and shortages in Indian Country were intensifying.

From day one, the Biden administration has mobilized the entire federal government to address the urgent issues facing Indigenous people and to usher in a new era of nation-to-nation engagement on tribal issues.

Today, as we kick off the first White House Tribal Nations Summit of this administration – the first since 2016 – we will celebrate historic action to support tribal communities. We’re proud that this administration has already invested roughly $44 billion to help tribes recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and advance equity and opportunity – and help tribal communities overcome new and long-standing infrastructure challenges – with more to come.

President Joe Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland

During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to “ensure tribes have a seat at the table at the highest levels of the federal government and a voice throughout the government.” In the first 10 months of the administration, the president has delivered on that promise.

He reconstituted the White House Council on Native American Affairs, which we both are honored to co-chair, bringing together representatives from every Cabinet agency – from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Small Business Administration.

Building ties

Just six days into office, the president signed a memorandum committing federal agencies to regular and robust consultation with tribes. Thirteen high-ranking officials have traveled to Indian Country this year, including the first lady. The president has appointed a number of Native Americans to both Senate-confirmed positions and political appointments across the federal government. The Senate also recently confirmed a Muscogee Nation woman as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

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To take on the pandemic’s devastating effects in Indian Country, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan in March, devoting more than $32 billion to tribal communities and Indigenous people – the single-largest federal investment in Native communities in the long history of this country. With these resources, Indian Country has begun to rebuild. Native communities have gone from having some of the highest COVID infection rates to the highest COVID vaccination rates.

A nurse takes a swab sample from a Navajo Indian woman complaining of virus symptoms, at a COVID-19 testing center at the Navajo Nation town of Monument Valley in Arizona.

Today, Biden will sign into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, with more than $13 billion devoted to Indigenous communities. That vital funding will ensure clean and safe drinking water, address pollution, improve tribal transportation, expand broadband access and close the digital divide. The impact will be immense. As one tribal leader commented, “This will have generational impacts for my tribal nation and Indian Country as a whole.”

Making vital commitments

We’re working to support tribal communities in other ways, too. Seventeen departments and agencies have now signed a memorandum of understanding committing to strengthen tribal treaty rights, working to ensure that their policymaking and regulations protect the rights promised by the federal government in treaties with tribes. Additionally, in the face of unacceptably high levels of violence – with a disproportionate number of Native women reported missing or murdered – Biden will sign an executive order today aimed at strengthening public safety and justice for Native Americans.

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Even as we make these vital commitments, we continue to look ahead. The Build Back Better Act in Congress will transform Indian Country, making child care and caregiving accessible and affordable, lowering health care costs, strengthening working families and combating the effects of the climate crisis that disproportionately impact Indigenous communities.

As government officials and representatives from 574 tribes gather for today’s summit, our administration is committed to listening to and partnering with tribal nations to forge a safer, more equitable and more prosperous future. Together, we can strengthen our nation-to-nation relationships and deliver equity for generations to come. 

Deb Haaland is secretary of the Interior. Susan Rice is director of the United States Domestic Policy Council.