U.S. to boost spending on tribal lands, protect Nevada sacred site

U.S. President Joe Biden visits the SK Siltron CSS facility in Bay City, Michigan

By Andrea Shalal, Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Biden administration will give Native American tribes more say in managing federal and tribal lands as part of a plan that includes assistance for tribes whose land has been harmed by climate change, the White House said on Wednesday.

President Joe Biden and other Cabinet officials announced the measures at a two-day Tribal Nations Summit, with additional steps focused on providing better access to capital for tribal nations.

Biden also said at the summit that he intends to protect the area surrounding Spirit Mountain in Nevada, known as Avi Kwa Ame to the Fort Mojave tribe, which has been urging the United States to designate the huge swath of land as a national monument.

"I'm committed to protecting this sacred place that is central to the creation story of so many tribes that are here today," Biden announced during remarks at Tribal Nations summit in Washington.

Biden was met by applause when he commented that he intends to visit tribal lands while in office.

Among the other new actions announced by the administration are efforts to boost purchases of tribal energy and other goods and services, and to revitalize Native languages.

The three signature pieces of legislation passed during Biden's time in office - laws dealing with infrastructure, climate and COVID-19 relief - have provided nearly $46 billion in funding for tribal communities and Native American people, the White House said.

The actions include new uniform standards for how federal agencies should consult Native American tribes in major decisions that affect their sovereignty, the creation of a new office of partnerships to advance economic development and conservation initiatives and agreements promoting the co-stewardship of federal lands, waters, fisheries and other resources of significance and value to tribes.

"I made a commitment my administration would prioritize and respect nation-to-nation relationships," Biden said. "I hope our work in the past two years has demonstrated that we're meeting that commitment."

The Interior Department also announced it would award $115 million to 11 tribes that have been severely impacted by climate-related environmental threats, and $25 million each to two Alaska tribes and the Quinault Nation in Washington state to help them execute their plans to relocate their villages to safer ground.

Federal agencies will also be instructed to recognize and include indigenous knowledge in federal research, policy, and decision-making, by elevating tribal "observations, oral and written knowledge, practices, and beliefs" that promote environmental sustainability.

The Small Business Administration will announce plans to boost access to financing opportunities, while the Energy Department plans to increase federal agencies’ use of tribal energy through purchasing authority established under a 2005 law unused for more than 17 years.

The administration will also work to deploy electric-vehicle infrastructure in tribal lands, prioritize the replacement of diesel school buses with low or zero emission school buses, and help tribes buy or lease EV fleet vehicles.

As part of that drive, the Interior Department will set a goal to award 75% of contract dollars from Indian Affairs agencies and 10% of the department's remaining contract dollars to Native-owned businesses. Along with a new Indian Health Service goal of 20% of purchases, the actions could redirect hundreds of millions of dollars to businesses on tribal lands.

The government will also release a draft of a 10-year plan to revitalize Native American languages and which underscores the urgency for immediate action, while formally recognizing the role that the U.S. government played in erasing Native languages.

The administration also announced a new initiative that will aim to widely deploy broadband and other wireless services on tribal lands, helping Native American tribes improve communication services that have lagged those of non-tribal lands.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Valerie Volcovici and Jeff Mason in WashingtonAdditional reporting by Katharine Jackson in WashingtonEditing by Robert Birsel and Matthew Lewis)