The White House Tribal Nations Conference

The 7th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference (WHTNC) brought together President Obama, tribal leaders from across the country, and key federal officials on Nov. 5 to discuss how they can continue to work together to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. government and cement a legacy that empowers Indian Country’s future.


The annual conference included a rousing address by Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Secretary, U.S. State Department, as well as other tribal leaders and federal officials. For more information, click here.


The third arm chair participants described agency actions that fulfill tribal trust responsibilities and create permanency for tribal initiatives, the panel included the following:

  • Director Dr. John Holdren, Office of Science & Technology Policy;
  • Director Christy Goldfuss, Council on Environmental Quality; and
  • Deputy Secretary Mike Connor, Department of the Interior


Christy Goldfuss stated that as The White House follows and implements the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), stakeholder engagement is at the core of its efforts. For instance, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has issued a memorandum to the heads of federal agencies encouraging more active solicitation of tribal entities for participation as cooperating agencies in NEPA documents.


She said that meaningful coordination with tribal entities, and the analysis of the effects of proposed actions on tribal lands, resources, or areas of historic significance is an important part of federal agency decision making.


Dr. John Holdren brought up two comments President Barack Obama made to him within a week of starting his current job. The first was that our only options as a nation—because the challenges we face are so daunting—are cooperation and partnerships. Second, the President said that if the U.S. wants to lift its game, one of the most important things we can do is tap the talent pool of the entire nation, which requires the inclusion of all groups.


Goldfuss added that sometimes the federal government is the worst actor on environmental and cultural sustainability. As an example, she described how a community received funding for a new school in a location that would be washed away by coastal erosion within 20 years. They were not allowed to use the funds to build a school in a more resilient area.


When asked how climate change would impact tribes, Dr. Holdren said that climate change is already impacting tribal communities across the U.S. The federal government is addressing this through partnerships with the tribes. Resources are being allocated to help people deal with the challenges. By providing data and tools, the federal government is assisting local decision makers acquire the knowledge and capacity to minimize damage to their communities.


In order to manage the broad range of interagency activity in the Arctic, Dr. Holdren said the Arctic Executive Steering Committee coordinates Arctic planning—with input from partners and stakeholders—by federal, state, local and Alaska Native tribal governments and Alaska Native organizations.


Another all-of-government approach to Indian Affairs that was announced at the conference was “Coordinating and Leveraging Federal Energy Resources to Tribes and Alaska Natives.”


The U.S. departments of Energy and the Interior are expected to finalize and execute a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in December 2015 to facilitate coordination efforts and resources to promote energy project deployment on tribal lands and focus on local economic development. The MOU will represent a historic collaboration between federal agencies and Indian Country by joining forces to improve the delivery of federal government services.


Lastly, a new approach called “Advancing the Arctic Region” was announced to support health and safety. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will develop a tribal-federal workgroup through the “Executive Order on Enhancing Coordination of National Effort in the Arctic.” The workgroup will comply with the Intergovernmental Exemption to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and will use early 2016 as its timeline for early consultations and review.


Other advances and commitments in support of tribal nations can be found here.


Dr. Holdren was asked what help is given to Alaska communities facing rising tides. In response, Dr. Holdren said local leaders are supplied with climate resiliency toolkits containing best practices. NOAA is working directly with affected tribes, and the Senior Arctic Officials have a coastal erosion working group, co-chaired by the DOI.


When President Obama was in Alaska in August, the administration rolled out more than 40 new commitments to work with local officials and groups, including many Native American organizations. Additionally, the Department of Agriculture announced application deadlines and the availability of up to $10 million in FY2015 for competitive grants to assist communities with extremely high energy costs.


Because climate change impacts are being experienced now, Goldfuss said all funding options need to be examined and the priorities organized. By removing barriers, grants can be directed toward the right problems.