President Obama Speaks at the 2012 Tribal Nations Conference Closing Session (Video)
President Obama promised Native American leaders Wednesday he will “keep working together” with them, and outlined policy changes across his administration that Native Americans long have sought.
Federal officials will pay the medical bills of Native Americans who have served in the armed forces, and tribes won’t have to pay taxes on aid to their members, administration officials said.
The White House also announced millions of dollars in new transportation grants and new programs to help schools on reservations.
“But we’ve got more work to do,” Obama said at the daylong White House Tribal Nations Conference. “We’ve got to rebuild America’s infrastructure — from roads to high-speed Internet — that will help connect native communities to other parts of the country and other parts of the world.”
Representatives from the 566 federally recognized tribes were invited to the summit, which featured discussion panels with Cabinet secretaries, federal lawmakers and the heads of agencies that deal with Indian issues. Topics included law enforcement, disaster relief, education, economic development, housing, energy and infrastructure.
The summit comes as tribal leaders worry about how the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of spending cuts and tax increases set to hit Jan. 1, would affect the federal government’s trust obligations and investments in other services affecting tribes.
They said they felt comforted by the president’s remarks on Wednesday.
“I’m glad that we finally got a president who stands up for Indian people,” said a beaming Kevin Bonds of the Tule River Yokuts in California.
Wednesday’s gathering “should send a loud and clear message to everyone that Barack Obama understands the importance of Indian Country and is committed to making sure we continue to make progress,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who kicked off the summit.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the Veterans Affairs Department will reimburse the Indian Health Service for treatment of Native American veterans.
“This agreement will make it easier for tribes to enter their own agreements with VA for the health services they provide,” she said.
Robert Shepherd of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota said that’s a “huge deal” for his tribe, which has many veterans.
Also at the summit, Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin announced proposed guidance on excluding from income tax certain benefits that tribal businesses provide to members, such as assistance with utility bills, tuition payments, school clothes and help for the elderly. Tribes had asked that the assistance be excluded.
“We’re a tribe who gives away a lot of money to our members,” said Jim Shakespeare of the Northern Arapaho in Wyoming. “It would devastate us if it was taxed.”
VIDEO 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington