At a White House Tribal Nations Conference on Thursday Dec. 16, President Obama told representatives of more than 300 American Indian tribal governments that his administration will sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While not legally binding, the declaration “carries considerable moral and political force” in recognizing the legitimacy of the nation’s 565 federally recognized tribes, according to the State Department.
“The aspirations it affirms, including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples, are ones we must always seek to fulfill,” the president said. “But I want to be clear: What matters far more than words, what matters far more than any resolution or declaration, are actions to match those words — and that’s what this conference is about. That’s the standard I expect my administration to be held to.”
Longstanding treaties require the federal government to help tribes provide basic services and manage their land, but Native American leaders say Washington historically ignored their input on how those programs should be implemented. That’s changed under Obama, who, at last year’s tribal summit, ordered federal agencies to consult with tribes.
Tribes already are watching carefully whether the declaration will give them more authority to explore and manage energy development on their lands, a potentially lucrative source for many impoverished reservations, said Tex Hall, head of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association. “We should have the ability to take land into trust if it’s within our exterior boundaries for any economic project, be it a refinery or be it a buffalo or wild horse sanctuary — whatever it is we want to do — without everybody saying ‘No, they can’t’ and the (Interior) secretary listening to those public comments,” said Hall, who attended the summit. “If I want to develop it, I still have to wait for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
The declaration marks the end of a year that many tribal leaders and lawmakers said has been a watershed for Indian Country.
The Indian Health Care Act, which calls for modernization of medical treatment, was passed as part of the sweeping health care reform law Congress adopted in March. In July, Obama signed a landmark tribal justice measure that gave Native Americans more power to police their reservations and prosecute criminals. And this fall the federal government approved settlements with Native American farmers who had been discriminated against on agriculture assistance and with individual Native Americans whose trust accounts were mismanaged by the Interior Department.