President Obama told hundreds of tribal leaders at an Interior Department summit today that he knows what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, pledging to work with them on issues including energy development and climate change.
Delivering the opening remarks at a daylong White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama told representatives from the 564 federally recognized tribes that the promise was more than just lip service. He vowed that his administration will develop a comprehensive outreach and response on tribal issues.
"You will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House," Obama said to a standing ovation.
Obama also promised to work with the tribes on a nation-to-nation basis and to respect their sovereignty.
"Tribal nations do better when they make their own decisions," he said. "That's why we're here today."
The president acknowledged a long history of abuse and neglect by the federal government. "Treaties were violated," he said. "Promises were broken. You were told your lands, your religion, your cultures, your languages were not yours to keep."
Given the past, Obama said he wouldn't have been surprised if the leaders hadn't come today, saying it showed "an extraordinary leap of faith."
Sitting at a table on stage in the Interior auditorium, Obama signed a memorandum directing all federal agencies to develop within 90 days a plan to improve tribal consultation. "These are challenges we can only face by working together," he said.
Obama said the conference is the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders in American history. Half a dozen Cabinet secretaries will lead panels to discuss issues of economic development and natural resources, public safety, housing, education and health. Obama will return to Interior this afternoon to deliver closing remarks.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, praised Obama for holding the conference, noting that he had pledged to do so during the presidential campaign. "He's keeping his word today," Keel said.
On energy, Obama said up to 15 percent of potential wind energy resources are on native lands, and the solar possibilities are even greater, but that tribes often face unique hurdles to developing them. The administration is looking for ways to give tribes more input on planning for access to the transmission grid, he said. It is also streamlining the permit process for energy development and transmission across tribal lands and securing tribal access to financing for new energy projects, he added.
Obama took questions from the audience, including several on energy development and climate change. Several Alaska Natives told him how warming temperatures are affecting their villages, melting ice and interfering with whaling.
Obama said the issue of environmental integrity on tribal lands "is something that too often has slipped through the cracks." He added that his administration's energy agenda must be matched with an environmental agenda.
"This is going to be a top priority generally -- improving our environmental quality," he said.
Saying that native Alaskans whose economies depend on interaction with the environment already have had to make significant changes, Obama said his administration is working "diligently" on climate change. He expressed hope that today's session would allow tribal leaders to coordinate with Cabinet secretaries on improving environmental coordination.
"We have a lot to learn from your nations in order to create the kind of sustainability in our environment that we so desperately need," Obama said.
Asked about drilling off the coastline of Alaska, Obama said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is in the process of reviewing some decisions made by the previous administration and that tribes will be consulted.
John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, asked Obama to visit the Tar Creek Superfund Site and for help in cleaning it up. The president promised to have federal officials follow up on the request.