WASHINGTON (Reuters) — President Joe Biden on Monday announced a step toward prohibiting oil and gas development outside the boundaries of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico as part of a Native American tribal summit he is hosting.
Biden also signed what he called a “long overdue” executive order aimed at improving public safety and justice for Native Americans, flanked by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other Cabinet members. Representatives from 570 tribes are expected to participate in the event, which is being held virtually because of the pandemic.
The Democratic president, newly returned from the COP26 UN climate conference, said he and more than 50 Native Americans serving in senior roles in his administration would “take action to protect the greater Chaco landscape from future oil and gas” leasing as part of a broader push to protect tribal lands.
“We have to continue to stand up for the dignity and sovereignty of tribal nations,” he said.
Biden added that the $1 trillion infrastructure bill he plans to sign later on Monday includes a record $13 billion for tribal infrastructure that he said had been chronically underfunded for generations.
A separate $1.75 trillion social spending bill still working its way through Congress would provide further help for tribal communities, including record funding to combat climate change, Biden said. He told reporters after the event he remained confident the measure would eventually pass.
Tribes have long called on U.S. officials to ban drilling in the area, a center of ancestral Pueblo culture in the Southwestern United States.
The White House said the Department of the Interior will “initiate consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of federal lands within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, protecting the area from new federal oil and gas leasing and development.”
The proposed action would not apply to individual Native American allotments or to minerals within the area, it said.
“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,” Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary, said in a statement, adding that it was time to consider “more enduring protections.”
Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have urged Haaland to ban oil and gas development outside the boundaries of the high-desert park in northwest New Mexico, which is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency.
The executive order on safety directs the Departments of Justice, Interior, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to “create a strategy to improve public safety and justice for Native Americans and to address the epidemic of missing or murdered Indigenous peoples,” the White House said.
Homicide is the third-leading cause of death among Native women who are murdered at rates more than 10 times the national average, according to federal data.
Investigations into violence against Native peoples have been underfunded for decades, with murders and missing persons cases often unsolved and unaddressed, Haaland said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which runs law enforcement on Indian lands, is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Dr. Jill Biden, an educator, said after hearing from children and youth speaking in their Indigenous languages that urgent action was needed to preserve tribal languages given the dwindling number of Native speakers.
“The ability to speak our own truth, in our own words, is power,” she said, announcing a memorandum of agreement that will provide federal aid to teach and preserve Indigenous languages.
Vice President Kamala Harris will make remarks on Tuesday. The tribal summit is the first of its kind since 2016. There were none during the presidency of Donald Trump.
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