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Secretary Vilsack Addresses White House Tribal Nations Conference-Unveils Sacred Sites Report

Navajo Code Talker veterans attended the 2012 Fourth Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.

Navajo Code Talker veterans attended the 2012 Fourth Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.

Yesterday,   it was my privilege to join other cabinet members in addressing an estimated 500 tribal members from across the United States at the White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Interior Department.

Since taking office, President Obama has turned a new page in our government-to-government  relationships with members of 566 federally recognized tribes.  The President and cabinet members including myself understand the need to improve program delivery to members of Tribes, including those on and off reservations.  While we have made strides in improving services to Tribes, much is left to be done.

One step we are taking today is the filing of our Sacred Sites report.  This has been a collaborative effort involving USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations and the Forest Service.  This report represents a commitment by USDA and other agencies to be better partners and improve communications about Sacred Sites, better protecting those sites, access and provide government-wide training to ensure that there is a better understanding of the relationship those sites have to decisions we make.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at the Fourth Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at the Fourth Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012.

We have had great participation with other agencies, especially with the Department of the Interior, in formulation of this report. I especially want to thank Secretary Ken Salazar for his commitment.  We have also just finalized a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) within federal agencies involved in land-based management.  The Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Defense, Energy and the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation have all agreed to work a much more coordinated and collaborative process.  This MOU sets up an integrated effort which should make it easier for Tribes to understand and appreciate the steps being taken by the Federal Government.

The President is insistent that these Sacred Sites be protected and preserved: treated with dignity and respect.  That is also my commitment as Secretary of USDA.  I know my fellow Secretaries share in this commitment.  We understand the importance of these sites and will do our best to make sure they are protected and respected.

Since President Obama took office four years ago, USDA staff has held about 2,000 meetings with Tribes each year.  We settled the Keepseagle lawsuit, and I appointed a Council for Native American Farming and Ranching, to advise me on implementation of outreach and assistance efforts.  Four members of the Council met with me yesterday in my office at USDA.  We have worked with the Tribes to provide healthy and nutritious meals, increasing the variety of fresh vegetables available to the tribal commodities distribution program.  We’ve supported distance learning and tele-health through broadband deployment in some of the remotest areas of the West and Alaska, and the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and the Natural Resources Conservation Service have created a Customers Guide to Farm Loan Programs. Perhaps most importantly, we have moved to provide funds to ensure that Native Americans have access to clean, safe drinking water and quality sanitation systems.

As it has for the past four years, this Tribal Nations Conference gives members of the cabinet, including myself, an opportunity to meet with Tribal leaders and obtain critical feedback.  We look forward to continuing the effort to work with Tribes to not only assist them, but to learn from them as descendents of America’s first farmers and stewards of the land.

President Obama addressed the White House Tribal Nations Conference as well.  To see the President deliver his remarks click here.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with members of the Council for Native American Farming and Ranching at the Agriculture Department on December 5th.  (Left to right)  Gerald Lunak, Jerry McPeak, Sec. Vilsack,  Porter Holder, and Mark Wadsworth

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack meets with members of the Council for Native American Farming and Ranching at the Agriculture Department on December 5th. (Left to right) Gerald Lunak, Jerry McPeak, Sec. Vilsack, Porter Holder, and Mark Wadsworth

One Response to “Secretary Vilsack Addresses White House Tribal Nations Conference-Unveils Sacred Sites Report”

  1. Klee Benally says:

    Mr. Vilsack,
    I am deeply disappointed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s role in the desecration of the San Francisco Peaks located in Northern Arizona. Arizona Snowbowl is currently proceeding with expansion that includes snowmaking with treated sewage effluent on the Holy San Francisco Peaks. This action is in blatant disregard for Indigenous People’s deeply held cultural & religious beliefs, community health, and the environmental integrity of the sensitive mountain ecosystem.

    The desecration the Holy Peaks is in direct contradiction of President Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to support “legal protections for sacred places and cultural traditions, including Native ancestors’ burial grounds and churches.”

    Snowbowl is a private, for profit, ski area using the San Francisco Peaks under a Special Use Permit (SUP) issued by the U.S. Forest Service. The expansion of this small scale privately owned ski resort and wastewater snowmaking is not in the public’s greatest interest.

    The Snowbowl expansion serves the special interests of Snowbowl owners and recreationists.

    Section VIII(A) of the Special Use Permit is titled “Termination for a Higher Public Purpose”. Provides that “if the public interest requires termination”, the Secretary of Agriculture can terminate the permit and pay for only the improvements.

    Moral duty, respect, and ecological integrity are mandates of the highest purpose. We urge you to do everything in your power to protect this ecologically and culturally significant site.

    Sincerely,
    Klee Benally

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