White House Tribal Nations Conference kicks off in Washington DC

The seventh White House Tribal Nations Conference begins in Washington, DC today, and each of Alaska’s 229 tribes was invited to send a representative. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters the Obama Administration has improved how government works with tribes.

“And a big part of this conference is to discuss how we make these gains permanent,” Jewell said.

Among the successes Jewell named is better collaboration with tribes to address the high suicide rate, settling old lawsuits and paying tribes fairly when they contract with the federal government to provide services.

“I’d like to underscore that the president’s budget calls for full mandatory funding of contract support costs,” Jewell said. “When we contract work with tribes, there’s a cost associated with that.”

Jewell also credits the White House initiative called “Generation Indigenous” with drawing Native youth together and elevating their voices. The secretary says she knows tribes are concerned the improvements could disappear after President Obama’s term ends in 14 months.

“We hear the sense of panic,” Jewell said. “But I will also say, we have bipartisan support in Congress for a lot of the work that we’re doing, on Indian education, on support for tribes, on sovereignty and self-governance. This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue.”

President Obama is due to address the tribal conference this afternoon.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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