Indian Affairs | AS-IA Blog

 Assistant Secretary - Indian Affairs' Blog 


ASIA Washburn, photograph, close-up of him at a whitehouse tribal nations conf breakout session

Ancient Culture, Modern Significance in Southeastern Utah

Posted July 23, 2015

Few places in the United States are as rich with cultural history as the wild lands of Southeastern Utah. Ruins of the homes of tribal ancestors share a landscape showcasing thousands of examples of stunning rock art.  For visitors to this landscape, the artistic work of the people who resided here long ago is matched only by the beauty of the landscape.  For those who trace their ancestry back to these ancient people, this beautiful landscape remains alive with the spirits of their ancestors.  For all, it is a place of wonder.
With the Director of the National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management Steven A. Ellis and Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources & Environment at the USDA Arthur “Butch” Blazer, I had the privilege of attending a meeting of tribal leaders from this region who gathered this past weekend to discuss the importance of protecting a landscape around the striking feature of the Cedar Mesa known as Bears Ears.  We were struck by the personal stories of spiritual connection to this rugged land.  We heard a medicine man discuss the hundreds of species of flora traditionally collected in the area to provide medicines for healing his people. We heard other stories, too, and a shared desire to protect this land of their ancestors, so that they may share it with their children and grandchildren.
The tribal coalition that has formed to protect this land is broad and deep. The meeting, which occurred outdoors on the high mesa, among the pine trees, demonstrated the power of this sacred land to bring people together. Begun by the Chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the meeting was co-chaired by representatives from Navajo and Hopi.  Leadership from the Ute Indian Tribe of northern Utah also participated, as well as pueblo representatives from as far away as Zuni and Cochiti in New Mexico. The intertribal Bears Ears Coalition continues more than five years of work to protect this area, led by the grassroots Utah Dine Bikeyah, and now has support from more than two dozen tribes.
This Administration is profoundly committed to upholding our trust responsibility and treaty obligations to Indian tribes and supporting tribal sovereignty and self-determination.  As we work hard on initiatives to enhance culturally appropriate curriculum in our schools, to restore tribal homelands and to address many broken promises, we are also mindful of the incredible responsibility of protecting the cultural heritage preserved in sacred landscapes.  We are listening carefully to the tribes.  We look forward to working with tribal leaders who described to us their responsibility to honor the spirits of their ancestors who continue to animate this landscape and the equally important obligation to raise children – and future leaders – who share an unbroken connection, through this landscape, with their ancestors.  We share the desire of tribal leaders to protect sacred places and leave the earth better than we found it.
To see photos from the meeting, you can click here.

ASIA Washburn, photograph, close-up of him at a whitehouse tribal nations conf breakout session

White House 2012 Tribal Nations Conference: Helping Indian Country Move Forward

Posted on December 11, 2012

On December 5, I had the tremendous honor and privilege of attending my first White House Tribal Nations Conference as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. The event was hosted by President Obama and Secretary Salazar at the Interior Department’s Sidney R. Yates Auditorium in Washington, D.C. It’s the fourth year in a row that the White House has provided tribal leaders this important opportunity to speak directly with officials at the highest levels of federal government, and hear from the president himself, about Indian Country issues. I was in listening mode, seeking their wisdom.
Leaders from more than 300 federally recognized tribes attended the conference, and cabinet officials heard from them on a variety of important topics. In addition to Secretary Salazar, the leadership of the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, Justice, Transportation, and Treasury, as well as the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Small Business Administration, turned out to report to the tribal leaders on their efforts to help Indian Country move forward. Many others were in the audience, including several members of Congress.
The White House coordinated breakout sessions with topics on “Strengthening Tribal Communities: Economic Development, Housing, Energy and Infrastructure,” “Protecting Our Communities: Law Enforcement and Disaster Relief,” “Securing Our Future: Cultural Protection, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection,” “Building Healthy Communities, Excellence in Education and Native American Youth,” and “Strengthening and Advancing the Government-to-Government Relationship” where tribal leaders could speak face-to-face with federal representatives about their peoples’ concerns and needs. Each session was well-attended (some with standing-room-only participation), and tribal leaders spoke frankly while federal officials listened, offered responses, and took notes.
In the closing session, the federal officials who led the breakout sessions reported to all the attendees what they had heard from the participants in their sessions. This was an incredibly powerful moment for me, and I’m sure for many in the audience, because of two words that were repeated by each speaker: “We heard.”
The opportunity for a tribal leader to come to Washington, D.C., and interact with those working at the highest levels of government has historically been rare. Although there have been occasions, notably in the 19th century, where past administrations met directly with one or a few tribal leaders at a time on federal actions or policies impacting them, it was rare for the White House and cabinet officials to hear directly, on a regular basis, from persons living on Indian reservations and serving in tribal communities.
What Indian Country has experienced over the past four years is something new and exciting in the government-to-government relationship. President Obama’s Tribal Nations Conferences and vigorous implementation of tribal consultation, which he is so committed to that every department is mandated to have its own plan to implement the original Executive Order on tribal consultation, give real meaning to the phrase “government-to-government relationship” and set an important precedent for the future.
Much has been accomplished in Indian Country over the past four years. For those of us in federal government, it means greater respect and support for tribal self-determination; giving tribal governments the tools, training, and support to improve economic, education, health, and public safety conditions in their communities. We are not only listening to, but we are hearing tribal leaders when they come to us with their concerns, their ideas, and their dreams.
Though much has been accomplished, many more challenges remain ahead of us. It’s an incredibly exciting time for Indian Affairs because we are, in many ways, the place where Indian Country and the Federal Government continually intersect. Our team will be working to address the  issues tribal leaders raise with us over the next four years and asking them to help set our agenda. 
Indian Country has come full circle from the days more than a century ago when tribal leaders frequently came to the nation’s capital to meet face-to-face with the president and members of his cabinet to defend their rights and homelands. This time around, with our help, Indian Country is moving forward to a future filled with hope, progress, and promise. At the Tribal Nations Conference we were listening, and we heard.
ASIA Washburn, photograph with flag bearers before whitehouse tribal nations conference
The Assistant Secretary stands with the female color guard and other military personnel before the conference started.