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Beyond blunt truths about Columbus Day, Biden presses for real progress for Indigenous people

Tatanka Gibson of the Haliwa-Saponi/Nansemond Tribal Nations leads attendees in song and dance at Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia on Oct. 11 during a gathering marking Indigenous Peoples' Day. (Matt Rourke/AP)

President Biden made history this month as the first president to commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but it was his observance about Christopher Columbus that was notable for its blunt truths.

Dual presidential proclamations marked Monday, traditionally only Columbus Day, as opposite sides of the same historical coin. One recalled Columbus getting lost while seeking Asia, landing instead in the Bahamas in 1492. The other celebrated American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians for “the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples.”

Monday also was the call to order for the 78th National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) convention. The virtual gathering drew a bevy of Biden officials before ending Thursday. NCAI President Fawn Sharp said in an interview that the Biden administration has agreed to the organization’s main goal — assurance that “no other sovereign can take unilateral action against the land, territories, resources and people of tribal nations without their consent.”

Acknowledging that point as it honored Italian Americans for enriching the nation, Biden’s Columbus Day proclamation said “western exploration ushered in a wave of devastation: violence perpetrated against Native communities, displacement and theft of Tribal homelands, the introduction and spread of disease, and more.”

That history was noted in his Indigenous Peoples’ Day Proclamation, as it also “recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations” and repeats “a promise of equality and opportunity for all people.”

That’s a promise, Biden wrote, “we have never fully lived up to.”

The Biden administration pushed its efforts to make that promise real by sending a slew of top policymakers to address the convention. The headliner was Vice President Harris, who was followed by five Cabinet secretaries and other top appointees, an impressive exhibition of alliance that activists want backed by action.

Harris also noted the violence, land theft and disease spread by Europeans, without mentioning Columbus by name, while highlighting administration policies and actions that go beyond the Indigenous Peoples’ Day proclamation.

“Native women and girls are missing and murdered at alarming rates,” she said to the convention. “This is an epidemic, and it must end.”

She described how other administration-backed initiatives, aimed for the general population, would aid America’s first peoples. “Native American voters are being systematically denied access to the ballot box,” she said, “which is why we must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”

With congressional approval, Biden’s infrastructure plan would set aside funding for tribal transportation projects and provide Native communities money for new water infrastructure and high-speed Internet.

“Together, our American Rescue Plan and our Build Back Better agenda will have provided more than 31 billion dollars for Native communities,” she added, referring to Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus bill and his infrastructure plan, as part of “the largest investment in Indian country in our history.”

Money is important, but Native communities also want to be respected and treated as peers in governing.

On that point, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the first Native American ever to serve as a Cabinet official — cited Biden’s executive order last week, reversing a Trump administration decision and restoring full protection to three national monuments, including Bears Ears in Utah. More than an environmental decision, Haaland said Biden’s directive, which she recommended, demonstrated the administration’s commitment to “centering the voices of Indigenous Peoples and affirming the shared stewardship of our country with tribal nations.”

The Biden administration also is pushing Native communities that enslaved Black people to allow their African American descendants full tribal citizenship, the New York Times reported. Some tribes permit only people with “Indian blood,” and not the Black “Freedmen,” full access to services, such as care by the Indian Health Service.

The Interior Department and the Indian Health Service are supporting those traumatized after they or their relatives were forced into federal boarding schools, reported Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo. She spoke to NCAI from Massachusetts, where she ran Monday’s Boston Marathon. In June, she launched an investigation into the cultural assimilation program that wrecked families for more than 150 years beginning in 1819. The U.S. government forcibly removed Native children from their homes and into boarding schools where some died, and their culture and languages were forcibly suppressed.

Culture also can be suppressed by the inappropriate export of heritage items. A top priority for Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (D-N.M.), chair of the House Natural Resources subcommittee for Indigenous peoples, is her Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act. It was approved by the full committee Wednesday. The legislation, she said in an interview, is “an example of protecting their cultural resources rather than attempting to destroy them.”

That and other actions show movement on Native American issues, but that movement can seem to be in slow motion.

Haaland compared accomplishing the agenda items to her marathon: “The progress we are making may not be on the fastest pace, but it will be lasting and impactful.”

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