WASHINGTON — Since first taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama has promised American Indians that his administration would listen to them.
Wednesday, five of his Cabinet secretaries sat on a stage in an Interior Department auditorium and listened to Indian tribal leaders vent — on issues ranging from tax reform and land issues to health care funding.
And they were particularly frustrated with the automatic budget cuts known as the sequester. One complained that the inequities in funding between Indians and other Americans had been made worse by the sequester.
Facing the leaders after his Cabinet secretaries departed, Obama said he understood.
“We've got to stop the self-inflicted wounds in Washington,” the president said. “Because for many tribal nations, this year's harmful sequester cuts and last month's government shutdown made a tough situation worse. Your schools, your police departments, child welfare offices are all feeling the squeeze.”
More than 300 tribal leaders attended the fifth White House Tribal Nations Conference, the largest attendance yet, according to the president.
Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr., who attended the conference, said “these Cabinet secretaries really want to work with tribes and that starts at the top with the president. There is a genuine desire to work with tribes.”
Hoskin said the tribe had managed its money prudently and was able to fill in some of the gaps caused by the sequester.
“But it is hitting our programs,” he said.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby was part of a small group of Indian leaders who met with Obama and other administration officials on Tuesday at the White House.
He said in a statement that the president “has developed a tribal consultation policy enabling leaders of American Indian tribes to have meaningful input into the development of policies which have enhanced housing, health care, education, economic development and law enforcement services in Indian Country.”
Congress' only American Indians — Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, a Cherokee, and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Moore, a Chickasaw — attended part of Wednesday's conference.
In his remarks, Obama said the administration wanted to balance protection of tribal lands with economic development.
“And working together, we want to develop the energy potential of tribal lands in a responsible way and in accordance with tribal wishes.
“Over the last four years, we've more than doubled oil and gas revenues on tribal lands — a big reason why the United States is now more energy independent. So we're working with tribes to get more renewable energy projects, like solar and wind, up and running. Your lands and your economies can be a source of renewable energy and the good local jobs that come with it.”