Biden to protect Native American heritage site, boost safety

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President Joe Biden signs an executive order to help improve public safety and justice for Native Americans during a Tribal Nations Summit during Native American Heritage Month, in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Monday ordered several Cabinet departments to work together to combat human trafficking and crime on Native lands, where violent crime rates are more than double the national average.

Speaking at a White House summit on tribal nations, Biden signed an executive order tasking the Justice, Homeland Security and Interior departments with pursuing strategies to reduce crime. Biden also asked the departments to work to strengthen participation in Amber Alert programs and national training programs for federal agents, and appoint a liaison who can speak with family members and to advocates.

The administration also announced plans to pursue a 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling in Chaco Canyon, an ancient Native American heritage site in northwestern New Mexico.

“We have to continue to stand up for the dignity and sovereignty of tribal nations,” Biden said at the first tribal nations summit since 2016. The two-day summit was being held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected Indigenous peoples at disproportionate rates.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are more than twice as likely to be victims of a violent crime and Native American women are at least two times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted compared to other races, according to the Association on American Indian Affairs.

The administration also announced a long-sought action to protect Chaco Canyon, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the Bureau of Land Management will study the possible withdrawal for a period of 20 years from federal lands within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Such a move would bar new federal oil and gas leasing and development on those lands. Those lands will not be eligible for leasing while the study is underway, though past administrations had already opted to impose the buffer administratively.

Environmentalists and some tribes have complained that such a move is temporary and that permanent protections are needed. But it isn’t so simple; while some tribes have fought for protections, the Navajo Nation, which has more to lose by curbing oil and gas, has asked for a smaller radius around the site, an ancient center of Pueblo culture.

“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked, and thrived in that high desert community,” said Haaland, the first Native American to lead the Interior Department, the powerful federal agency that has wielded influence over U.S. tribes for generations. Haaland is a member of the Laguna Pueblo.

“Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations,” she said. The secretary represented New Mexico, where Chaco Canyon is located, in the U.S. House of Representatives before she was narrowly confirmed by the Senate to take over at Interior.

First lady Jill Biden, an English teacher, addressed the summit on the importance of preserving Native languages. Vice President Kamala Harris was set to speak Tuesday, the final day.

The tribal nations summit coincides with National Native American Heritage Month and is being hosted by the White House for the first time, with leaders from more than 570 tribes in the United States expected to participate. The summit was not held during the Trump administration; past conferences took place at the Interior Department.

Since taking office in January, Biden has taken several steps that the White House says demonstrate his commitment to tribal nations.

Among them are naming Haaland to lead the Interior Department. His coronavirus relief plan included $31 billion for tribal communities, and the administration has worked closely with tribal leaders to help make COVID-19 vaccination rates among Native Americans among the highest in the country, the White House said.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty said she hoped the summit would help eliminate red tape when building critical infrastructure on tribal lands.

Biden also spoke about infrastructure, specifically to note that the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill he was signing into law Monday afternoon would direct $13 billion toward Native American communities to help provide such things as high-speed internet and clean drinking water.

Biden recently became the first president to issue a proclamation designating Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, giving a boost to longstanding efforts to refocus the federal holiday celebrating Christopher Columbus toward an appreciation of Native peoples.

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