Farmington — Tribal leaders voiced their opinions and concerns to federal officials Wednesday during the White House Tribal Nations Conference.
This is the fifth year of the conference, which is held at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. Like in previous years, a representative from each of the 566 federally recognized tribes could attend.
Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was among the 10 tribal representatives who spoke to members of the White House Council on Native American Affairs during the afternoon session. The council was created by an executive order that President Barack Obama signed in June.
In his remarks, Shelly called for reforming the process in which the Bureau of Indian Affairs provides funding to tribes. Now, the BIA provides funds to states and then states funnel those funds to tribes under a memorandum of agreement. Shelly said funds should go directly to the tribes.
Since jurisdiction continues to be an issue in Indian Country, Shelly recommended establishing federal courts on tribal lands.
When Shelly mentioned the recent passage of the Navajo Nation Energy Policy, he tied it to the tribe's outlook on energy development.
"We're willing to change to clean energy. We're now burning coal, but we can change to clean energy and using the new technology," Shelly said, adding that he would be in a meeting today to discuss carbon capture.
He also urged support for the energy policies being sponsored by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
Although Shelly did not mention sequestration, it was on the minds of several tribal representatives.
Kirk Francis, chief of the Penobscot Indian Nation in Maine, said the funding disparities in Indian Country continue to increase, and sequestration caused the BIA budget to decrease by $119 million.
He warned that if sequestration continues, the BIA could lose another $52 million.
In addition to the BIA, the budget for the Indian Health Service remains underfunded.
"It is unacceptable and inhumane for Indian people to tell their folks that they can only get sick from October to April," Francis said.
Other leaders demanded the federal government mandatorily fund the programs and services provided on Indian Country.
"We prepaid for these services with the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors and millions and millions of acres that we ceded so the United States could become a country," said Aaron Payment, tribal chairperson of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan.
The treaties stipulate for the provision of health, education and social welfare for Native Americans, but the sequestration blocks those services, he said.
"Our programs did not create the national debt and imposing cuts on Indian Country will not balance the federal budget. We are a blip in the federal budget," Payment said.
Like previous year, Obama focused on the work his administration has implemented to strengthen the nation to nation relationships.
Among those accomplishments are creating the Council on Native American Affairs, establishing the Land Buy Back Program, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and expanding the Stafford Act so tribes can directly apply to the federal government for disaster assistance.
Despite this work, there are still other areas that need improvement, Obama said.
Those areas include reauthorizing the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, expanding job opportunity for Natives, providing access to quality and affordable health care and protecting native lands.
Obama also announced that next year he will visit the Crow Nation in Montana for the first time as president. During Obama's first campaign for the White House, he became an adopted member of the Crow Nation.Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nsmithdt on Twitter.