White House summit brings together tribal leaders

WASHINGTON, D.C.-In December, the third annual White House Tribal Nations Summit was held, bringing together tribal leaders and top administration officials to address critical issues facing tribal communities. During the event, U.S. president Joe Biden signed an executive order reforming federal funding and support for tribal nations and aimed to promote the next era of tribal self-determination.

The critical issues addressed by the summit included co-stewardship agreements for managing federal lands, training federal employees on tribal treaty rights, protecting sacred sites, streamlining federal processes, increasing accessibility of federal resources, and prioritizing the health, education, safety, and welfare of Native communities.

Some of the initiatives an-nounced from government entities included:

• The Department of the Interior (DOI) announced the publication of its final rule amending the process that governs the fee-to-trust lands process for tribal nations to transfer land title to the United States to hold in trust for the benefit of an individual Native citizen or a tribe. The final rule is purported to create a more efficient and less expensive fee-to-trust process.

• The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans to publish a final rule in 2024 to strengthen the controversial Section 184 Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program, a program that has become synonymous with homeownership in Indian Country.

The Section 184 program has been criticized because a small percentage of its lending has taken place on trust land, while most loans have been for off-reservation property, including reservation border areas.

The new rule aims to modernize the program and provide more homeownership opportunities in Indian Country by codifying program requirements, attracting more lenders, and establishing a minimum level of lending on trust land.

• A new website called the Access to Capital Clearinghouse, launched by the DOI and White House Council on Native American Affairs (WHCNAA). The site will offer a searchable database of federal funding opportunities, including grants and loans, available to tribal nations and Native businesses.

• The DOI and WHCNAA also unveiled a draft Request for Information (RFI) that will, when finalized, help the federal government identify and estimate funding that tribal nations require to meet their communities' needs. The RFI will allow tribes to identify barriers they face in accessing federal resources. The WHCNAA said it will take the draft directly to tribal consultation in January 2024.

• The DOI and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced progress on awarding contracts to Native-owned or Native-controlled businesses under the final rules of the Buy Indian Act.

• The Indian Health Services (IHS) announced that it awarded $444 million to Native businesses, representing 30.6 percent of its total spending on contracts. HHS purchased a total of $1.5 billion from Native enterprises.

The DOI said it awarded more than $1.4 billion in contracts to Indian economic enterprises in fiscal 2023, up from $1.2 billion in fiscal 2022. The totals include a record high of $1.03 billion awarded to Indian small business economic enterprises in fiscal 2023, an increase of more than 8 percent over the prior fiscal year.

• The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced an $86 million funding round for tribes under the State Small Business Credit Initiative. The funding amounts for the tribes are in addition to the $73 million announced in June of this year, targeting 39 tribal governments. The funding represents the largest-ever single investment in Native small businesses by the federal government, a Treasury spokesperson said. The SSBCI funding is structured to have a multiplier effect on small-business growth in Native communities. Every $1 of SSBCI capital funding is expected to draw up to $10 of private investment, amplifying the effects of the funding and providing small businesses with resources for growth.

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled the initial awardees under a $50 million grant program to help increase food sovereignty for tribes.

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