SPOKANE — The Obama administration has made great progress on issues important to Native Americans, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Wednesday encouraged tribes to keep the pressure on Washington, D.C., after a new president is sworn in next year.
Jewell spoke at a conference of the National Congress of American Indians, where she urged tribal leaders to make sure their voices are heard.
“We have done a lot, but we have a lot to do,” Jewell said. “We need to prepare the next lesson plans for the administration that will take over.”
Jewell highlighted efforts by the Obama administration, such as creating a White House Council on Native American Affairs. Obama created the council by executive order to deal with key issues in Indian Country such as education, energy, the environment, economic development and health.
She urged tribal leaders to ensure the next president retains the council.
“Your voices will be important to making sure that happens,” Jewell said.
Jewell opened her speech by noting she was pleased to be back in her home state of Washington. She is the former president and CEO of Seattle-based REI.
She also mentioned the recent death of Jim Boyd, a noted singer-songwriter who was also chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. Boyd died last week of natural causes at the age of 60.
Jewell said the Obama administration will continue working on Native issues in its final seven months in office.
“My boss is all-in,” Jewell said.
Since Obama took office, the federal government has settled dozens of lawsuits with tribes on issues such as water rights and treaty obligations, Jewell said.
The federal government has also worked to restore tribal homelands through programs in which the tribes re-acquire reservation land.
“These lands will make your nations whole again,” Jewell said.
She noted that some 416,000 acres of land has been put into trust for tribes and that the Obama administration has a goal of 500,000 acres by the end of its term.
In addition, 1.5 million acres have been restored to tribes under the Interior Department’s separate “Land Buyback Program,” Jewell said.
That program is designed to end fractional ownership of tribal lands.
An 1887 law split tribal lands into individual allotments that were inherited by multiple heirs with each passing generation. As a result, parcels of land on some reservations are owned by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individuals.
That can make property all but impossible to sell or develop.
In other developments, Jewell said the National Park Service has finalized a rule governing the gathering of traditional plants on its lands by tribal members.
Under the need to protect sacred tribal objects, Jewell said she has met with auction house officials in France to discourage them from selling ancient artifacts plundered from tribes in the past.
“These objects don’t belong to one person. They are part of tribal history,” Jewell said.
She called on the French government to work with the U.S. government to end the sale of sacred objects.
More needs to be done to improve the education of Native American children, Jewell said.
A big problem is that many schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education are decrepit and must be replaced, she said.“Seventy schools are in ‘poor’ condition,” she said.