WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - The 22nd Navajo Nation Council convened on Oct. 17 for the start of the fall session.
Among the list of individuals reporting was Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior on Indian Affairs.
Echo Hawk said he was appreciative of the opportunity to communicate on a nation-to-nation basis and was joined by Bureau of Indian Education Director Keith Moore and Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Mike Black.
"The Navajo Nation is the most significant tribal nation that we have in the United States, in terms of your membership, large land base and your treaty," Echo Hawk said.
Echo Hawk commended the Navajo Nation for providing leadership nationally and working on Indian Affairs issues like the tribal consultation policy, which benefited all of Indian Country.
Echo Hawk said he has personal knowledge of the Navajo Nation since he was raised in Farmington, N.M.
"My father employed Navajo people. I feel like I have a very special bond with the Navajo people," he said.
Echo Hawk said having Navajos employees in the federal government serving the needs of the Navajo people is crucially important.
He commended the work of Sharon Pinto, the newly appointed BIA Navajo Regional Office Director. He also praised the efforts of Dr. Charles "Monty" Roessel, who now serves as the BIE's Associate Deputy Director for Navajo schools.
In the past 29 months, Echo Hawk said he has traveled to 43 states to see the conditions of Indian Country firsthand and to work with tribes on a nation-to-nation basis.
The relationship the federal government now has with Indian Country has improved significantly over previous administrations and Echo Hawk pointed to November 2009, when 564 tribes sent leadership to Washington, D.C. to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama.
"At the end of the day, as (President Obama) looked out over these hundreds of tribal leaders, he said, 'I promise you, as long as I am President of the United States, you will not be forgotten,'" Echo Hawk said.
The needs from tribes have been building over the generations, Echo Hawk noted, and the task of working with Indian Country is in his hands, along with Black and Moore.
"That is my job now, to work with Keith Moore, Mike Black and the other career employees in the agencies of Interior Indian Affairs to do all we can to move forward advancing tribal nations on a nation-to-nation relationship," he said.
President Obama's executive order to improve the consultation process with tribes was decreed in December 2009, which not only pertained to Interior Indian Affairs, but all departments and agencies in the federal government.
The federal government is now in the 11th hour of releasing the final policy on the consultation process with tribes on a nation-to-nation basis.
Echo Hawk said one example of the consultation process with the Navajo Nation was the efforts with the Navajo Generating Station.
Echo Hawk said, "Just recently, we received another letter from President Shelly calling for a formal government-to-government consultation because the EPA is about to make a significant decision."
Although Interior Indian Affairs is not a decision-making authority on the NGS, Echo Hawk said they would fulfill their trust responsibility of communicating the views of the Navajo Nation and other Arizona tribes affected by the EPA's decision.
Another critical priority for Indian Country and the nation is education.
Echo Hawk said he attended the groundbreaking and dedication of the Rough Rock Community School, which was the largest American Recovery and Reinvestment Act project from Interior Indian Affairs, funded in excess of $56 million.
"We have been able to either replace or do major repair on 28 Indian schools across the U.S. because of the ARRA funding," Echo Hawk said. "These dollars reached Indian Country.
"For generations, we as native people have lived in a deep recession or worse," he added.
While the nation cowers before the 9.1 percent unemployment rate, Indian Country has survived unemployment figures hovering around 85 percent in some native communities.
"Don't talk to us about recession. We're moving forward with education and it is the lynchpin on how we're going to make an advancement and achieve the kind of promise and prosperity that the First Americans deserve," Echo Hawk said.
One of those prosperities for native nations involves land into trust.
Echo Hawk called for the help and support of the Navajo Nation to come to the aid of Indian Country regarding a "clean Carcieri fix," in response to the contentious 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has impeded land into trust for tribes.
"We need once again, the support, the strength of the Navajo Nation to speak up and help our brothers and sisters," Echo Hawk said.
Although the Navajo Nation does not have any issues at present time with land into trust, many tribes are wrestling with the opportunity to restore tribal homelands. Some tribes are even landless.
"We've been involved in the consultations that will lead to revised legislations of the BIA that have been on the books for more than 50 years with no change," Echo Hawk said.
He said in 2009, the Obama Administration was greeted with a stifling economic climate that had financial institutions on the verge of collapse, a plummeting stock market and sliding housing values.
Despite the abysmal realities of the nation's economy, Echo Hawk said President Obama added $183 million into the coffers of the Interior Indian Affairs.
The 3.4 percent increase was supported by Congress, and in 2010, the Obama Administration increased the funding to Indian Affairs by over 10 percent.
"The President of the United States and Congress made sure that Indians were included across Indian Country," Echo Hawk said. "Today, we have a split Congress and it's more difficult to get these budgets through."
The test for Indian Country continues. It is a challenge steeped in survival.
For more information, visit www.doi.gov/tribes.
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