Biden to protect Native American sacred site, boost safety

President Joe BIden in front of the Cross Hall of the White House. (Aug. 31, 2021) Photo courtesy of Adam Schultz/The White House

President Joe Biden plans to showcase his commitment to Native Americans on Monday, Nov. 15 by taking steps to improve public safety and justice for their communities and seeking a 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling on Chaco Canyon, an ancient heritage site in northwestern New Mexico.

Biden was set to announce the measures when he addresses the first tribal nations summit since 2016. Leaders from more than 570 tribes in the United States are expected to participate in the two-day event, with nearly three dozen addressing the gathering.

The White House is hosting the summit virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected Native Americans and Alaska Natives at disproportionate rates.

First lady Jill Biden also was set to speak on Monday, with Vice President Kamala Harris following on Tuesday. Several members of Biden’s Cabinet will also participate.

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

Biden was signing an executive order tasking the Justice, Homeland Security and Interior departments to work together to help combat human trafficking and crime on native lands, White House officials said Sunday in previewing the president’s announcements. They are looking at ways to strengthen participation in Amber Alert programs and national training programs for federal agents. They will also create a liaison who can speak with family members and to advocates.

Biden also was expected to announce steps to protect Chaco Canyon, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage site a few hours northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The Bureau of Land Management, an agency of the Interior Department, will begin a study on 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 only 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 Secretary Deb Haaland. “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.”

The tribal nations summit coincides with National Native American Heritage Month and is being hosted by the White House for the first time. 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, a former congresswoman from New Mexico, as 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.

Biden’s 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. She was also interested in “concrete action” from the administration through executive orders to provide as much support to help Native communities recover from COVID-19 and “the systemic under service of our communities.”

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.

Earlier this year, Jill Biden spent two days in April visiting the Navajo Nation’s capital in Window Rock, Arizona.