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Secretary Jewell fields Questions Previewing Tribal Youth Gathering

July 9, 2015

ON-THE-RECORD CONFERENCE CALL

BY SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR, SALLY JEWELL

WHITE HOUSE DOMESTIC POLICY COUNCIL DIRECTOR, CECILIA MUÑOZ

AND ADMINISTRATION FOR NATIVE AMERICANS

COMMISSIONER, LILLIAN SPARKS ROBINSON

PREVIEWING THE FIRST-EVER TRIBAL YOUTH GATHERING

 

Via Telephone

12:34 P.M. EDT

 

     MR. TILLER:  Hi, good afternoon, everyone.  Thanks for joining us to discuss tomorrow’s White House Tribal Youth Gathering.  Today’s call is on the record -- on the record and embargoed until 6:00 a.m. Thursday.  You’ll also be receiving shortly an embargoed fact sheet with commitments.

 

     Joining us on the call today are White House Domestic Policy Council Director, Cecilia Muñoz; Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell; and Commissioner Lillian Sparks Robinson from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans.  Ms. Muñoz and Secretary Jewell will deliver comments at the top, and Lillian will be available for questions after. 

 

     Just a reminder, today’s call is on the record and embargoed until 6:00 a.m.tomorrow morning.

 

     And with that, I’ll turn it over to Cecilia Muñoz.

 

     MS. MUÑOZ:  Thanks very much, Jeff.  And good afternoon, everybody.  Thanks for taking the time to be on the call.  Tomorrow, the White House is hosting the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering in collaboration with the Native youth organization, UNITY -- United National Indian Tribal Youth -- as well as several agencies of the federal government.

 

     The youth gathering builds on the President’s Generation Indigenous initiative, which we call Gen-I, and is focused on finding new avenues of opportunity for Native youth.  Gen-I is about creating new policies and investments to expand educational, employment, health and social services for Native youth, and also to strengthen the administration’s engagement with public and private partners to improve outcomes for all youth.

 

     When the President and the First Lady took their historic trip to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, they had the opportunity to hear directly from young people who described the challenges they faced in their lives.  The President was deeply moved by what he heard, and he knows that the issues that he heard about are not isolated to Standing Rock.  He was also really inspired by the talent and the courage of the Native youth he met to overcome their circumstances.

 

     So when he returned from Standing Rock, the President convened his team and he’s charged us with finding new avenues of opportunity for Native youth.  The event tomorrow was one of the results of that effort.  So for the first time, more than 875 Native youth representing 230 tribes in 42 states will participate in the White House Tribal Youth Gathering.  The youth participating in the gathering completed the Generation Indigenous Native youth challenge.  This is a challenge that encouraged these young people to create and lead projects that positively impacts their community.  We have some really incredible young leaders that are coming, and our partners have put together more than 50 watch parties around the country.

 

     The First Lady is going to be participating as well in this event.  And at least five of the President’s Cabinet will be participating throughout the day.  Buttomorrow is really about the young people themselves and making sure that we’re doing everything possible to provide them an opportunity for their voices to be heard.  Our youth represent the next generation of leaders, making significant contributions to their tribal nations, to the cities that they live in, to the United States and to the world.

 

     So with that, let me turn it over to Secretary Jewell who’s going to give further details on the progress that the Department of Interior is making and talk a little bit more about the event.

 

     SECRETARY JEWELL:  Great, thanks so much, Cecilia.  And thanks, more importantly, for your attention and leadership on this issue and for co-chairing the White House Council with me on a regular basis.  It’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to engage across the entire Cabinet of the Obama administration, and I think helps put tribal issues front and center in Cabinet agencies more so than ever before.

 

     So there’s lots of things that we work on at Interior that relate to Indian Country, but I’m going to spend my time focusing on Indian education specifically and some of the progress we’ve made.

 

     I would say that in my two-plus year tenure now in this job, some of the brightest spots have been visiting with Native youth.  I’ve been to dozens of schools around the country, and even more reservations -- places that are encouraging, like Mississippi Choctaw, which has done a really good job in control of their schools, and schools that really need some help with their physical facilities and lots of challenges, like Rock Creek Elementary School, which I visited during the time of the President’s visit to Standing Rock.  I’ve been to the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school up in northern Minnesota, which was never designed to be a school to begin with, and is problematic in terms of the physical plan, but encouraging with regard to what goes on in the classroom and the support of the community for really a culturally rich education for the students.

 

     So it’s been from Maine to southern Florida, and from Kotzebue, Alaska down to Arizona.  And I would say, in general, the schools that I’ve seen have been in various stages of disrepair, which has not been very encouraging.  I have been to some brand-new schools as well.  I’ve been to day schools and boarding schools, most recently the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma, and talking with kids there, where their biggest support network comes from the school.  It is their home.  They’ve been there from 4th through 12th grade, and are going onto college as a result of the new family that they’ve created by being at Riverside.

 

So it’s sometimes hard not to feel sad or angry when I see the condition of some of these facilities, because there has been a history of separation of people from their families.  There’s been a history of trying to push Native culture aside.  But what I see now is a desire to really bring back Native culture and create that culturally rich and academically rigorous curriculum which is going to help Native youth succeed in the future.

 

I also know that these schools are located in pretty remote places; it’s hard enough for me to get there.  It’s hard to attract teachers, it’s hard to retain teachers, and sometimes you recruit them and they have no place to stay.  So this is something that we’re working on with our friends at Housing and Urban Development.

 

I will also say that you’re running a small school district and you’re trying to comply with laws from 23 different states, and you’re doing this at a time when struggling resources, institutional and budgetary fragmentation is just not working.  So I think it’s fair to say that my commitment -- and it’s consistent with the President’s commitment when he visited Standing Rock -- is that we have got to change up Indian education if we’re going to uphold our trust and treaty obligations to our nation’s first people in the future.  And the status quo is just not acceptable.  You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. 

 

So I think probably the first Cabinet member I visited with officially since I took this job was Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education.  And we have been partnering closely with the Department of Ed through the White House Council on Native American Affairs leveraging his knowledge and skillset, recognizing the knowledge we have within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, and diagnosing what the systemic challenges are to Indian education overall.

 

So in June of last year, we released a blueprint for reform of Indian education.  I issued a secretarial order to redesign and restructure the BIE.  And we’ve been making huge progress since that time.  We’ll be releasing a progress report here tomorrow on Indian education.

 

So we’re working to bring BIE schools’ control back to tribes, recognizing that the people that care most about the young people in their communities are the people in those communities themselves, and the families, the extended families in some cases, that are going to do the best job they can for these students.

 

So we’re going to be announcing additional funding for seven tribal nations to help their schools build capacity for tribal education departments, as well as providing important funding for 20 tribal colleges and universities to help provide a pathway for students in tribal high schools to attend college.  I gave the commencement address this year at Haskell and last year at SIPI, and in talking to the heads of those schools, one of the challenges they have is the readiness of students to handle the curriculum of college.  And so these grants specifically will be helping with creating that pathway for students at tribal high schools.

 

     We also are well underway in creating a one-stop shop, which is an online resource for Native youth to serve as an electronic tribal support center.  There are so many different programs available to tribal youth, but they’re disconnected.  It’s hard enough for us within the federal family to understand all the programs that are there.  So with the help of our friends at the Department of Labor, we will be releasing that website sometime this summer to help organize the vast resources to benefit Native youth.

 

     I have to pause and credit some of you that I hope are on the phone to say that media has been very, very helpful to us in raising awareness.  AP broke the story on the need for and the work to reform the BIE school system after they visited the Crystal Boarding School on the Navajo reservation.  We got sustained attention from the Minneapolis Star Tribune that helped push the Minnesotan delegation to be champions for BIE funding.  And your voices raising awareness on these issues are enormously helpful to us as we work with Congress for their support moving really to recognize that no one cares more or knows more about what’s right for young people than the young people themselves, their families, and their communities.  And I think together we can deliver that culturally rich, academically rigorous education. 

 

     So it’s one of the reasons we’re bringing these young people together for the Native Youth Gathering tomorrow.  I’m very confident, having met so many of these young people, that we will have leaders among us at this event tomorrow that will help tackle the most pressing issues of our day -- not only in Indian Country, but well beyond.  There’s no doubt that these are difficult issues, the road ahead is hard, but the long and short of it is we can and must do better for our young people.

 

     So I just want to end by saying I’m incredibly proud to work for a President who has charged his Cabinet to spend more time in Indian Country, especially with Native Youth.  I’m honored to chair that effort and continue the Cabinet-Native Youth listening tour throughout the coming months.  It’s just really heartening to sit down with these young people.

 

     And I also applaud the President for committing the full force of his Cabinet to supporting Native youth, for forging partnerships with groups like the Center for Native American Youth, UNITY, and NCAI to make tomorrow’s White House Tribal Youth Gathering a reality.  Because no matter what issues we’re working on today, tomorrow and beyond, whether it’s on education or tackling climate change or trust reform, they’re all with an eye toward the health and prosperity of tribal nations through the next generation of tribal leaders.

 

     So thanks for listening to the call this afternoon and the bright light you’re going to share on these important issues.  And with that, I’ll turn it back to Jeff to coordinate the Q&A session.  Thank you.

 

     MR. TILLER:  Thank you, Madam Secretary.  Operator, we’ll open the line for questions.

 

Q    Thank you so much.  I appreciate everyone’s time -- Madam Secretary, Ms. Robinson, Ms. Muñoz.  I just want to know -- this is historic for Indian Country.  This is historic inviting this many Native youth.  I just am curious, behind the scenes, what is the general tone in D.C. now as this historic event builds for Native youth?  Because I’ve been hearing from Indian Country of how exciting it is.  I’m just curious what the tone is in D.C., with the administration -- this incredible, incredible administration.

 

MS. MUÑOZ:  So this is Cecilia.  I can’t speak for the town, but I can certainly speak for the administration and that is we’re incredibly excited to have so many young people from across the country and across Indian Country here for this event.  We are really thrilled.  We are looking forward both to an exciting day -- hopefully what will be an exciting and fruitful day for the young people, but we're also really looking forward to what we will learn from our interactions with young people.

 

     The way the day is constructed, there’s going to be a lot of back and forth and give and take and really hopefully intensive conversations.  And I think we are hoping to learn at least as much as the participants.  And we're really, really thrilled that so many are coming.

 

     SECRETARY JEWELL:  Yes, let me add -- this is Sally Jewell.  The way the day is structured, it’s really driven by young people.  The participation of Cabinet members is largely in these moderated discussions between tribal youth and members of the Cabinet.  So there’s not a lot of speechifying.  It’s going to be a lot of listening and a lot of responding to questions that were submitted by trial youth in advance.

 

     So I will tell you that in my visits across Indian Country, sitting down with young people, there are great insights and I’d say a lot of optimism about the role that they can play and the pride that they take in their tribal heritage, which is something that really for generations the U.S. government tried to drum out of them.  And it’s just great to see that be regenerated in a pretty exciting way, including a command of languages that in many cases their parents didn't have. 

 

So I think that there will be a real uplifting of support not only there, but also -- there’s going to be almost 900 of them spanned out around Washington, D.C.  And they will be meeting as part of UNITY, as well.  And so their presence will be felt around town, and it will be fun to watch the media here in Washington, D.C. pick up on that.

 

     MS. MUÑOZ:  I’ll just say -- this is Cecilia -- one more thing -- that the President and the First Lady in their individual interactions with Native American youth -- you heard me describe a little bit their encounter at Standing Rock.  They brought the young people from Standing Rock here to the White House and met with them and had lunch with them further.  And as an individual matter, I think it’s been very important for the President to communicate to young people how much they matter; how much he and the First Lady believe in them and their capacity to be successful, to make change in their communities, to be agents of change in their own lives and in the lives of the country.

 

     And he’s really hoping that we will be able to communicate that on a much larger scale with this event.

 

     Q    Thank you.  My question is for Lillian Sparks Robinson.  As a Native American yourself, how do you envision tomorrow actually playing out?  And what can one day do for a teen from the Everglades in south Florida or from Standing Rock?  What can one day possibly do for them up there in D.C.?

 

     MS. ROBINSON:  Thank you so much for that question.  As a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe and someone who has had the opportunity to work with youth on a lot of these issues, I can tell you one day means a lifetime for a lot of these youth that are coming to D.C.

 

     Not only is this for some the first time getting on an airplane or coming to D.C. and seeing how our federal government works and how it impacts their daily lives, but I’m really hoping that it will also inspire folks who will go back to their communities, who will go back to their tribe, and assume leadership roles not only within their tribe, but also in their state, and then hopefully national positions as well.  I'm hoping that our youth will see, not just myself, but a lot of our American Indian and Alaskan Native officials here in Washington D.C. working to improve their lives and improve service delivery, and that they will see themselves in us. 

 

And we’re really, really excited to know that information that we’re going to receive tomorrow and follow up conversations will impact and inform our policies and programs moving forward. 

 

So not only will this one day make a huge difference in the lives of these young people, but I think it’s going to make a huge difference in terms of, again, how we do service delivery that directly impacts the youth.

 

SECRETARY JEWELL:  I want to add something -- this is Sally Jewell -- even though I'm not young and I'm not Native.  (Laughter.)  What I have heard from young people, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Native youth or otherwise, is it gives them a chance to connect with each other and an opportunity to keep in touch with each other. 

 

And so I think that is one key thing that will come out of tomorrow is people will meet each other whether they’re from Seminole Nation in South Florida or from Kotzebue, Alaska.  And they’ll recognize they have a lot of issues in common.  And I think that pipeline of connections to each other will be the gift that keeps on giving long after this is over.  So we’ll see, but I'm confident that’s going to occur.  There’s going to be an awful lot of switching of Facebook and email and Snapchat and whatever latest thing has happened that I'm not aware of.  But I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for these young people to connect with each other and realize just how much they share and how much they can learn from each other.

 

Q    Hey, guys.  Thanks so much for doing this call.  So I just had a quick question for you on -- I guess it’s kind of logistical.  You said that there’s seven -- you’re going to announce tomorrow that seven -- additional funding for seven tribal nations.  Which tribal nations are they?  And how did you all -- how was that process done to pick who would be getting the funding?

 

SECRETARY JEWELL:  So this has been part of our effort to support tribal education departments.  We’ve had a couple of different grants.  One has been Sovereignty in Indian Education -- a grants program.  There are five tribes that have received funding for that, which is tribes that have said we’d like to consider taking over BIE schools and running them ourselves.  We want to assess what’s involved and whether or not that’s something we can take on.

 

These are specifically focused on tribal education departments and what it would take to set one up.  So the grants that we have will go to the Hopi Tribe, the Pueblo of Acoma, Santa Clara Pueblo, the Navajo Nation, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

 

Some of those overlap with the Sovereignty in Indian Education grants.  Some are new to this grant process.  But overall, it’s $1.45 million to support their efforts on tribal education departments.  And that was based on an application process -- they submitted an application and we reviewed those applications and granted $1.45 million.  So there will be an additional $550,000 we’ll be putting out for additional follow-up granting in the future.  So that’s kind of a quick summary.

 

Q    Thank you.  I was just wondering, what are you hoping to envision as far as the future of tribal education?  What would you like to see in the near future as you’re making some of these proposed changes?

 

SECRETARY JEWELL:  This is Sally Jewell again.  The BIE school system is broken.  We have about 45,000 students across the entire United States spread across multiple states in 180 different schools, one-third of which are in poor condition.  And it shows in the results.  The worst-performing schools within Indian Country and the worst-performing schools in the nation are the schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education.  That's just a travesty and something that's not acceptable to me. 

 

     So what we did for that first year that I was here was work on where they’re working well, where is Native American education exceeding national standards, and why is that, and what can we learn from that.  So we spanned out and did listening sessions and evaluations in a number of different reservations and schools across the United States, and really discovered that the schools that were doing best were those where there was clear accountability, where the tribes were involved, and where the education both honored the cultural traditions of the tribe and supported those traditions, while also providing strong academic rigor. 

 

     And I would use Mississippi Choctaw as an example of an organizational structure that has worked well.  So often we found that there were multiple layers of bureaucracy and lots of adults involved in the process, but it wasn’t translating to results for the kids in the classrooms.  For the BIE specifically, you might have a boss that’s a long way away -- they might be in Albuquerque or Minnesota or Washington, D.C. -- and the schools are a long way away, and that doesn’t lend itself to accountability to make sure that the leaders of those schools are doing the job they need to do.

 

     So I can't say we found lots of great examples where it was working well.  I will say that with the support of the Department of Education on their knowledge base, we feel that the most important way to operate is down at the local level where the tribes have control over the schools, and we transition from a direct provider of services to a support organization that can share those best practices and those bright spots.

 

     And I will say that in my early conversations with Arne Duncan, as a newcomer to government and a newcomer to this role, I said, is Indian education something that should be handled by the Department of Education?  And he said, well, we don't actually do direct delivery of services anywhere in the country, so we're not equipped to handle it either.  And that was kind of an “ah-ha” moment.  It's like we're not really equipped to handle it and what we're doing isn't working.  So tribal control of schools, understanding the bright spots across the nation, and bringing those to bear. 

 

And we've got quite a few experiments going on, including relatively recently, with the support of Department of Education supporting the Miccosukee tribe’s desire to oversee its -- I think its average yearly progress, or AYP -- whatever that stands for -- which takes control over the testing mechanism for their students.  And they are planning to apply even more rigor than the state of Florida had.  And they are an experiment; they’re willing to sign up for that.  They’ve been working on it for a decade.  But we think that that's going to help other schools so they’re not jumping around trying to figure out what are the state requirements versus what are the tribal requirements; can their own languages count toward a foreign language credit -- which always is kind of humorous to me because these languages were around long before English -- but nonetheless, does that count in curriculum.

 

     So we're experimenting around the nation and sharing those best practices, and really transforming ourselves at the BIE into a team of professionals who can help tribal governments establish performing school systems for their young people.  And it's voluntary.  The Sovereignty in Indian Education grants and other grants we're doing are tribes that say, yeah, we want to be part of this.

 

     Meanwhile, we're going to be trying to apply all these lessons to the schools we continue to run until such time as they’re taken over by tribes or states or otherwise.

 

     MS. MUÑOZ:  This is Cecilia.  I would just add that we are also focused on the Native American students that are not in BIA schools that are in public school systems around the country.  And in fact, the debate this week that’s happening in the House and the Senate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act -- Secretary Duncan and I did a press call earlier this week to focus in on the accountability structures in that legislation. 

 

And the whole point of our focus is to make sure that we're collecting data by subgroups so that we know how vulnerable students are doing, and that school systems and states be on the hook to do something about that data when they find disparities, which is, if you were on that call earlier this week, you will have heard Secretary Duncan and I say that that is absolutely essential to the outcome of this legislation.  And this is one of the reasons why we want to make sure that Native American students continue to make progress.  And that where they're not making progress, that folks are on the hook to make sure that they do.

 

     Q    Thanks so much for holding the press conference today, lots of great stuff.  So there is legislation coming forward about a commission on Native children that will look across silos.  I understand that this is primarily focused on education.  But I was wondering if the administration had plans to talk about other issues facing Native youth such as housing and health care.

 

     MS. MUÑOZ:  So we are indeed focused on a variety of issues facing Native youth.  You heard the Secretary talk about the Bureau of Indian Education, which is a major reform initiative.  But in fact, there are a number of federal agencies that touch Native American youth.  And part of our effort is to make sure that we're working across the federal government, sort of breaking down silos and between agencies so that we are successful in what we attempt to do with respect to education, with respect to health care, with respect to mental health, with respect to things like job training or housing.  And the Department of Justice is also actively involved both in tomorrow’s event, as well as in this interagency effort.

 

     So yes, the whole point of Gen-I is to make sure that we are working effectively across the federal government in all of the various areas where we touch Native American youth, but also creating mechanisms, as you heard the Secretary say, for young people’s voices to be heard by the federal government in shaping the work that we do, as well in helping them stay connected both with our work and our intersections with them, but also staying connected to each other.

 

     And so that's very much the point of the whole Gen-I initiative.  And those are seeds that we expect to plant and begin to see the fruit of with this event tomorrow.

 

     SECRETARY JEWELL:  Let me just add -- this is Sally Jewell.  Part of the work of the White House Council on Native American Affairs is to talk through these issues where there are intersections between our departments.  For example, if I work hard to recruit a teacher and the teacher has no place to live, that becomes an issue or an opportunity for HUD, or even perhaps HHS.  If the Indian Health Service has surplus housing, or HUD can focus housing to ensure that teacher housing is maintained, then we have a much better opportunity of attracting and retaining that teacher.

 

     Likewise, in Justice, the Department of Justice can build facilities, but we need the budget to make sure we operate them.  And we have to make sure we build facilities that we actually are planning for their long-term use, and that means resources for Bureau of Indian Affairs that does a lot of the Office of Justice Services work. 

 

     So the White House Council on Native American Affairs brings us together to work through those issues, raises awareness, and helps every one of the federal agencies to not forget the Indians, which is -- all these jobs are big.  They're all complex and they all have priorities.  And what the White House Council does is it makes sure that our obligations, our trust and treaty obligations to American Indians and Alaska Natives don't get lost in the shuffle of all of the things that we're working on.

 

     MR. TILLER:  All right, thank you all for joining the call.  Just a reminder, today’s call is on the record and embargoed until 6:00 a.m. tomorrow morning.  Thanks.

 

                                      END                     1:03 P.M. EDT