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Remarks at 24th Annual Reservation Economic Summit and American Indian Business, Las Vegas, Nevada

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Monday, February 22, 2010

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Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
Remarks at 24th Annual Reservation Economic Summit and American Indian Business
Las Vegas, Nevada

Good morning.

It’s terrific to be here in Las Vegas - and not just because there’s no snow on the ground.

I am so pleased to be here, and I am honored to be the first Commerce Department Secretary asked to give the keynote address at the Annual Reservation Economic Summit.

Let me also congratulate the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development on its 40th anniversary, and for its role in making this week’s conference happen.

As some of you know, prior to joining the Commerce Department, I was the governor of Washington state for eight years.

And it’s exciting to be able to re-engage old friends from Washington State’s native tribes, and forge new ties with all of Indian Country.

Issues affecting Tribal Nations are personal to me.

When I was governor, I had the chance to work with some of you here on many issues that disproportionately affect Native Americans such as education, health care, preservation of natural resources and social issues such as alcoholism, spousal abuse and drug addiction.

We know that some reservations face unemployment rates up to 80 percent. Roughly a quarter of all Native Americans live in poverty. More than 14 percent of all reservation homes don’t have electricity and 12 percent don’t have access to a safe water supply. In some reservations as many as 20 people live together just to get by.

I am sure that you would agree that many of these problems can be attributed to the lack of a sound, sustainable economy and good paying jobs.

And let there be no doubt: putting people back to work is the number one priority of the Obama administration.

Now, I know that people are frustrated that the economy is not turning around quicker.

But it’s important to be mindful of where we have come from.

Early last year:

  • The economy was losing an average, 700,000 jobs a month.
  • And nearly $10 trillion in wealth has been lost in the stock market which was on a steady downward spiral.

We were on the precipice of a second great depression.

And this administration acted swiftly to rescue, rebuild and restore our economy.

We worked to get lending flowing again, enacted measures to stem the tide of foreclosures in our housing market, and extended assistance to banks and financial institutions.

We also enacted the most sweeping economic recovery package in history: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which included some $3 billion to rebuild and renovate schools on reservations.

And partly as a result of these and other steps, we’re in a very different place today than we were a year ago.

But I know that the President will not be satisfied until Indian Country is part of America’s prosperity. The First Americans will not be the last Americans in our economic recovery.

When the President spoke at the White House last November at the opening of the historic Tribal Nations Conference, and he said he wanted an ongoing, nation-to-nation conversation with all of Indian Country—he meant it.

When the President said that Washington can’t—and shouldn’t—dictate a policy agenda for Indian Country, he meant it.

Let me assure you that as long as I lead the Commerce Department, the President’s call for engaging Native American tribes will remain a top priority for our department.

To mention just a few promising developments of interest:

  • Last year, the Commerce Department awarded nearly $16 million in grants and contracts to tribes or Native American-owned businesses. Seven million of that came from the Recovery Act.
  • Last week, I decided to appoint Ron Solimon, from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development, to the Travel and Tourism Advisory Board at the Commerce Department. I look forward to his advice and counsel.
  • And today, I am pleased to announce that the Ute Indian Tribe Head Start Program in Fort Duchense, Utah will be part of a $13.4 million Recovery Act grant to the University of Utah to provide underserved communities around the state with high-speed, broadband Internet access.

Earlier this month, the Commerce Department issued its preliminary plan to establish regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration between your nations and my agency.

By the fall, we’ll issue a comprehensive strategy. This is an important first step in complying with the President’s directive that every federal agency actively engage Indian Country.

Going forward, an important Commerce point of contact for all of you will be Don Chapman, of the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, who became my Senior Advisor on Native American Affairs last October.

So I urge everybody here today to engage Don and use him as an entry point to the Commerce Department.

There are a variety of areas where the Commerce Department and Native American communities can and must work together.

One of the most important priorities this year will be the 2010 Census.

A few weeks ago, we kicked off the once-a-decade count of all Americans by visiting the tribal town of Noorvik, which is above the Arctic Circle and located in the NANA Region of Alaska.

The purpose of the Census is simple: to count every single person living in the United States, where they live.

But the Census is about a lot more than enumeration.

The Census allows every community in America, including Indian reservations, to get the political representation, the federal funding and the recognition they deserve.

The Census will directly determine how more than $400 billion a year in federal funding is allocated to state and local governments and reservations for things like education, human services, transportation and public safety.

In the past, Native American communities have at times not fully participated in the Census.

In 1990 for instance, American Indians living on reservations were under-counted by an estimated 12 percent - which was more than 10 times higher than the under-count rate of the general population at large.

And while the response rate was better in 2000, it’s critical that we improve even more in 2010.

You should know that the Census is also hiring local Native Americans to go door-to-door to conduct the actual count within their communities. And it means that this year there will be thousands of jobs available for Census workers to help count Native Americans.

Many of the Census-determined federal dollars that flow to Native American communities go to crucial economic development projects.

And in these difficult economic times, that's especially important.

The Commerce Department is continuing to work closely with and fund Native American Business Enterprise Centers.

These Enterprise Centers seek to expand upon trade that Indian Country has been conducting for millennia.

Broadway in New York City—the world’s financial hub—is built over a Native American trade route. The U.S. highways system is built upon trade routes used by Native Americans.

Trading and bartering in America has its roots in Native American tribes.

But growing trade throughout Indian country is critical.

That’s why, through our Minority Business Development Agency, Commerce helps NCAIED and its regional Enterprise Centers assist Native-owned companies to grow their business.

And over the past 40 years, NCAIED and its Enterprise Centers have had a great deal of success.

  • They have worked with approximately 80 percent of the tribes and assisted over 25,000 Indian Enterprises, while training over 10,000 tribal members in various aspects of business development.
  • Their clients have received, in total, more than $4.5 billion in contracts and financing.

Let me assure you that the Commerce Department’s commitment is long-term.

Of course, spurring economic development in Native American communities is about more than just directly assisting businesses. For too long, areas of Indian Country have lacked the modern infrastructure needed to compete in a 21st century economy.

And a particularly striking example of this is the lack of high-speed Internet access on reservations.

But today, when you don't have regular access to high-speed Internet, you don't have access to all the educational and employment opportunities it provides.

Fast and reliable Internet enables businesses and farmers to access global markets, children and adults to engage in distance learning and patients to be remotely diagnosed by experts at university medical centers.

That’s why in the president’s Recovery Act $7 billion dollars have been allocated to expand high-speed Internet access to underserved and un-served parts of America.

Already, the first round of grant funding has been awarded and Native American communities have benefited.

But there are many other grant opportunities to be had.

Grant applications for the second round of Recovery Act funding are due in the middle of March. So time really is of the essence for enabling Tribal Nations to put together bids for funding.

Obviously, this is a large undertaking. Issues that affect Navajo Nation, such as mapping parts of the desert in three U.S. states, are going to be different from issues affecting the Doyon Regional Corporation in the state of Alaska.

We have tried to streamline the regulatory and application processes and I urge you to consider partnerships between tribes and non-tribal applicants.

As the Commerce Department works to build up Indian businesses and communities at home, we’re also striving to help your businesses sell more of their goods and services abroad.

A few weeks ago, in Washington D.C., I announced the president’s National Export Initiative (NEI), which aims to double American exports over the next five years and support two million jobs here at home.

This is the first time the United States will have a government-wide export-promotion strategy with focused attention from the president and his cabinet.

Indian Country has significant opportunities to grow their economies through expanded exports.

I know that some Native American Chamber of Commerce’s are already planning trade missions to countries like Germany and Japan to drum up sales of lumber. When I was Governor, Native American tribes in Washington were part of my trade missions to increase exports.

This type of trade between tribes and foreign countries needs to increase.

And the Commerce Department is here to help you. The International Trade Administration (ITA) has a network of trade specialists posted in 109 U.S. cities and at 128 U.S. embassies and consulates in 77 countries that can match any native tribe or business with foreign partners all over the world.

Last week, at a meeting in Washington, we helped match forest-harvesting tribes with the prime contractors who are providing wood for the rebuilding effort in Haiti.

This is exactly the type of trade cooperation that we need to see more of and you can be assured that the Commerce Department will be actively seeking partners in Native American communities.

Finally, I want to address an issue that has always been of the utmost importance to Native American communities, and that is the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.

There are long-standing partnerships between Indian country and the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that offer a strong foundation for further cooperation.

As we deal with the effects of climate change, natural habitats are going to increasingly be impacted.

Last month in Alaska, I announced a “fishery failure” determination for Alaska Chinook Salmon after communities saw low salmon returns.

Although the causes of this failure are not entirely understood, its effects are clear. For both subsistence and commercial fishermen on the Yukon River, fewer salmon is having devastating effects.

Economically and certainly culturally, we all lose when natural resources are depleted, or when habitats and ecosystems are destroyed.

What’s more, as we increasingly rely on alternative energy sources to meet our country’s energy needs, destroying natural habitats may have myriad unforeseen consequences.

Up to 15 percent of our potential wind energy resources are on Native American land, and the potential for solar energy is even higher.

The Makah Nation on Washington state’s Pacific coast is looking to harness wave motion to create clean energy.

The natural environment has always been critical to Native American communities but with all these various stressors on our ecosystems, I just can't emphasize enough how crucial it is for us to work together to preserve our land, water and atmosphere for future generations.

The United States and Indian Country have a unique relationship. We are sovereign governments, and yet we are inextricably linked.

Still, there remains so much room to grow as partners.

I look around this room and I see in this crowd people with whom I had an extraordinarily productive relationship during my time as Governor of Washington state.

The relationship of trust and consultation I established during my tenure, built over years, and added upon step by step, layer by layer, is the path I want to follow at the Commerce Department.

I know that there is no one-size-fits-all way of partnering with the 564 federally recognized tribes. Issues that affect Navajo Nation are going to be different from issues affecting my home state’s Puget Sound tribes.

But if we can agree to move forward together as partners, then I am very optimistic we can build a better future.

Thank you.