Earlier today, I joined Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan and other top USDA officials here at the Agriculture Department for the Second USDA Tribal Leaders Listening Session. The leaders are in Washington for tomorrow’s White House Conference, called by President Obama because he is very serious about the need for the federal government to honor and respect our trust responsibilities to Native communities.
During an invocation at the start of today’s event, Dr. Ted Mala, physician and director of tribal relations at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage said that the USDA “takes care of our weakest people, rural people, who cannot be here today…give them strength.”
In her opening comments to tribal leaders, the Deputy Secretary said that today’s meeting is an opportunity to continue relationship building. We want to hear from the Tribes now, and throughout 2011 about the concerns facing your communities. We have undertaken a series of tribal outreach activities, designed regional venues to help us identify needs and provide service that’s more local and effective. Another two day USDA tribal outreach session is planned for Anchorage, Alaska on January 10th and 11th.
The Deputy Secretary also told the tribal leaders about how USDA has worked with the Justice Department to bring closure and settlement to the Keepseagle case. October’s historic settlement of the lawsuit offers more than monetary relief: it lays the groundwork for programs and consultation that turn a new page in the relationship between USDA and the Tribes.
President Obama and Secretary Vilsack are working each day to be responsive to the needs of the Tribes. Altogether, in fiscal 2009 and 2010, USDA Rural Development provided Recovery Act grants and loans of nearly $374 million to improve infrastructure in tribal communities. Of that amount, about $159 million is helping to expand broadband access in tribal communities.
The Deputy Secretary also discussed our efforts to revitalize rural America through an initiative called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food. On Tuesday, thanks to the leadership and efforts of so many, including the First Lady, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The legislation will improve the quality of school meals and help children nationwide gain access to school meal programs. This bill—vitally important to the health and welfare of our children—has been central to the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative to end childhood obesity within a generation. We’re looking forward to working with tribal governments and other agencies to launch Let’s Move in Indian Country! with the First Lady.
One of the things that I want you to know as you read this blog and follow the news that will be generated by the President’s meeting at the White House is that this administration is committed to doing things better, aggressively changing the picture. It won’t always be perfect, but you have my word you will get my best every day as I listen to you, other tribal members, and carry your message and your requests forward. To quote former President Lyndon Johnson, “I will do my best. It is all that I can do.”