Obama touts Indian Country inclusion in stimulus
President Barack Obama made a historic visit to the Interior Department on Tuesday and touted his plans to improve the economy in Indian Country.

Obama said the $787 billion stimulus package will be used to fix crumbling Indian schools. The law includes $236 million for school replacement and rehabilitation funds, along with $400 million in construction tax credits for tribes.

The package also includes loans that Obama said will create more jobs. On some reservations, unemployment rates run as high as 70 percent, according to Bureau of Indian Affairs data.

"The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will rebuild and remodel schools on Indian reservations across this country -- while providing more than $100 million in loans to spur job creation in the Indian economy," Obama said to loud applause.

Coming at an event to mark Interior's 160th anniversary, the remarks highlighted Obama's continued attention to an agency -- sometimes called the "Department of Everything Else," the president noted -- that has often been neglected by the White House.

The Obama administration is taking a different path and has promised Interior a bigger role in environmental, energy, accountability and other matters. Secretary Ken Salazar who became close friends with the president when both were elected to the U.S. Senate, has quickly taken a high-profile role in the administration.

Earl E. Devaney, the department's Inspector General, was recently tapped by Obama to oversee distribution of the stimulus funds. And just three weeks ago, First Lady Michelle Obama visited the department and said her husband will live up to his campaign pledge to appoint an Indian policy adviser at the White House.

The focus has tribal leaders hopeful about the direction the department will take in the coming years. They felt neglected during the Bush era, when budgets for the BIA were repeatedly cut.

"He is going to be a shining light for us," National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia said of Obama.

Garcia, a Pueblo leader from New Mexico who met with the now-president during campaign, said Obama has "listened wholeheartedly" to concerns raised by tribes. "I think that is an indication to Indian Country that we will se a lot more benefits, a lot more good for our people," said Garcia, who is leading NCAI's 2009 executive council winter session in Washington, D.C., this week.

Though Obama has yet to announce his choice to lead the BIA, his team moved quickly to shore up a nominee rather than wait until other Interior positions are filled, as past administrations have done. Tribal leaders received word of the potential pick within days of the presidential inauguration in January.

And for the first time in history, Obama is planning to nominate Native Americans to other positions at Interior that aren't strictly related to Indian affairs. Salazar, in testimony to Congress last month, said Native candidates are being vetted as Solicitor of the Interior and as Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation.

With the stimulus on the books, tribes will soon be looking to Obama to complete his first federal budget. He released an outline last week and although he is seeking more money for the BIA, the details are still unknown.

The event yesterday featured a blessing by Jerry Cordova, a member of Taos Pueblo who serves as the Native American coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management. He gave the prayer in Tiwa, one of the languages spoken in New Mexico.

Relevant Documents:
President Obama remarks at Interior anniversary (3/3) | Secretary Salazar remarks at Interior anniversary (3/3)

American Recovery and Reinvestment Act:
H.R.1 | S.1

Related Stories:
Obama to celebrate Interior's 160th anniversary (3/2)
NARF lawyer being considered for White House post (2/26)
Interior investigator to oversee stimulus for Obama (2/23)
Report slams BIA office in Alaska over roads funds (2/20)
Stimulus bill ready for Obama's signature (2/16)
Turtle Talk: Tribal tax exempt bonds and stimulus (2/12)
More Native picks expected at Obama's Interior (2/13)
Garcia hopeful in last State of Indian Nations (2/12)
First lady touts Indian agenda at Interior (2/10)
Native woman lands job in Obama's White House (2/9)
Larry EchoHawk quietly apologizing to tribes (2/6)
Larry EchoHawk won't comment on BIA nod (1/30)
Salazar pledges Indian focus at Interior Department (1/29)
Inouye praises Larry EchoHawk as BIA nominee (1/27)
Battle brews over Obama's potential BIA nominee (1/27)
Blog: The case against Larry EchoHawk for BIA (1/26)
Larry EchoHawk up for assistant secretary job (1/23)