Published February 15, 2022

Interior outlines improvements at National Congress of American Indians winter session

KSUT Tribal Radio News
By Sarah Flower

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Photo credit: U.S. Department of the Interior

The Department of the Interior addressed the National Congress of the American Indians and outlined improvements in the Bureau of Indian Affairs long-challenged detention program while addressing advancements in their Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. KSUT’s Sarah Flower has that story.

Transcript [4:59]

Sarah Flower:
The United States Department of the Interior led by Secretary Deb Haaland shared updates to the National Congress of American Indians executive council winter session yesterday about their incentives they've been working on during their first year in office. Secretary Haaland summarizes some of the biggest accomplishments from the perspective of the Department of the Interior and the Biden administration's work in Indian Country.

Deb Haaland:
This has been a big first year of the Biden-Harris administration and for Indian country, there were moments that will be part of our collective memory for many generations. First, we work together to get billions of dollars in the American Rescue Plan funds out quickly to protect our elders, young people and communities from this terrible virus. After years of call to action and tremendous response from Indian country and its allies, the president restored protection to Bears Ears National Monument. In my remarks on the White House lawn, I stated that President Biden would protect this sacred place for every child of the world. We were proud to center Indigenous knowledge and discussions at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland, enjoined international Indigenous leaders on the world stage. We kicked off the first White House Tribal Nations summit in four long years so that we could create policies based on the input of Indigenous leaders.

Also, included in the announcements were a series of reforms to the Office of Justice Services correctional program, after concerning reports about the treatment of incarcerated individuals, including 16 inmate deaths between 2016 and 2020. Facilities run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs had been heavily criticized for being overcrowded, and potentially dangerous conditions for inmates. Bryan Newland is the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs. Newland explains some of the reforms that will be implemented in the new plan.

Bryan Newland:
The report lays out recommendations for the department informed by an assessment of the thoroughness and effectiveness of in custody investigations. Based on the report's findings in our review, I'm announcing a reform plan based on 28 actions to improve our detention facility operations and investigations. This plan is based on the principle that we must recognize the dignity and humanity of the people in our customers.

The Department of the Interior says that roughly $43 billion in investments in Indian country will be implemented throughout the American Rescue Plan. Newland says the bipartisan infrastructure law will invest more than $13 billion into tribal communities across the country to help bolster community resilience, access to clean drinking water, access to high speed internet and replace aging infrastructure. He also says it authorizes up to $270 million over five years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs road maintenance program, as well as $2.5 billion to help the department fulfill settlements of Indian water rights claims. Newland emphasizes that investments like this in Indian country from the federal government have never been seen before.

This investment in Indian Country is long overdue. But it's unprecedent. The President's agenda for the country focuses on healing and building back better that agenda, guys the work that we're doing in Indian Affairs and across the administration to make life better for people and tribal communities.

Secretary Haaland emphasize that one of her greatest accomplishments in the past year as Secretary of the Interior is the creation of the first ever Missing and Murdered Indigenous Unit for American Indians and Alaska Natives within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services, something Secretary Haaland feels was far overdue.

This is a priority of mine. It's been a priority of mine since before I was a member of Congress, the Department of the Interior that is one of our top priorities. We want every single Indigenous person to be safe. This is not an issue that just popped up over the last few decades. It has been going on for the last 500 years since Europeans made contact on this continent. So we know that it's going to take an effort not just one law, but likely many and a tremendous amount of work to undo the damage that has been caused by this.

Secretary Haalaad says that her goals at the present time and for the future of the Department of the Interior is to continue to work on closing the digital divide in Indian country and to ensure that public lands and waters are welcoming to all and to help end derogatory stereotypes. She's also hoping to center indigenous people in the clean energy economy. Reporting for KSUT tribal Radio, I'm Sarah flower