WASHINGTON — 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 coronavirus 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.
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 the White House says demonstrate his commitment to tribal nations.
Among them are naming Deb Haaland, of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo, 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.