Alaska Native leaders attend White House Tribal Nations Conference

Alaska Native leaders are in Washington D.C. for the White House Tribal Nations Conference. They’re using the time to voice concern over federal mismanagement.

This was the fourth annual Tribal Nations conference … something President Barack Obama made light of in his remarks.

“Now three years ago, I was proud to see that this conference was the largest gathering of tribal leaders in our history. And back then, an event like this was rare. It’s gotten routine,” Obama said.

Mr. Obama used the day to highlight what he considers to be his administration’s successes in Indian Country.

“We focused on justice and tribal sovereignty. Longstanding legal disputes like the Cobell case have been resolved. I signed into law the tribal law and order act, which is helping to fight crime. These are all important steps, but we’ve got more work to do. With domestic violence so prevalent on reservations, we’re restoring your power to bring to justice anyone – Indian or non-Indian – who hurts a woman.”

But not everyone in attendance was as willing to tally a list of administration successes.

“I’m one of those that has been around long enough that I know the world’s not going to change today,” Ed Thomas said.

Thomas is the longtime president of the Tlingit Haida Central Council. He says subsistence is the highest priority for tribes in Alaska. The federal government oversees the subsistence programs. And Thomas worries its shirking a key responsibly – to manage the populations of fish and game.

“And we have not seen good movement from the administration on fixing those problems. From my perspective, I’m a manager type person, I don’t see enough money budgeted to manage fish and game resources on federal lands,” Thomas said.

The tribal nations conference is a gathering of representatives of each of the 566 federally recognized tribes. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance in public view – and the crux of the day happens behind closed doors.

The attendees break into groups to discuss issues that matter most to their people. Thomas says his group focused on the government-to-government relationship.

And he brought up the money his people are owed for indirect costs … the operating costs of running an Indian Health Service site or Bureau of Indian Affairs program.

“If you got a contract, it takes a certain amount of money to manage that contract, because you have facilities, executive direction and all of those things,” Thomas said.

Thomas says that despite any concrete settlements at the conference, he’s optimistic the government will resolve its issues. Because, he says, its conferences like these that show they’re still willing to talk.