In historic first, VP Kamala Harris visits Gila River Indian Community to discuss tribal issues
As part of an effort to illustrate the Biden administration’s commitment to Native Americans, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the Gila River Indian Community on Thursday to meet with tribal leaders from around Arizona.
It was the first visit to the Gila River community by a sitting U.S. president or vice president.
She touched on a wide range of issues pertinent to Native American communities, including infrastructure improvements, water resources, and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling upholding the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“So I celebrate, as we all do, what happened at the court,” Harris told the audience at the tribe’s Gila Crossing Community School in Laveen. “But when you read closely the attacks, and how the court ruled, let’s be fully aware of not only the essential protection that ICWA provides, but also understand that whatever gains we make will not be permanent if we’re not vigilant.”
Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis commended the Biden administration for making sincere efforts to strengthen the federal government’s relationship with the nation’s tribes.
“You know, tribes have been neglected, have been left away from the table for so long,” he said. “And it’s this administration that has included us, respectfully, meaningfully, in making decisions and providing opportunities for us to address the ongoing needs of climate change, of protecting our children, protecting our families, our mothers.”
Lewis cited the historic drought that has depleted water resources throughout Arizona and the Southwest.
“We’re going through one of the worst climate-change issues, which is the drought, the mega-drought,” he said. “We’re attacking this full-on, as we only know how, as water protectors. It’s in our value system, to conserve and protect the water.”
Lewis said the tribe has partnered with all communities — both within and beyond Indian country – to address drought, and it’s an example of how Native Americans can be involved in major policy discussions.
“We’re showing the innovation and the true partnership, the government-to-government partnership, with this current administration and with the sovereign nation that the community is,” he said. “This shows a true respect.”
There are 22 federally recognized Indian tribes in Arizona, in all areas of the state. From the metro areas of Phoenix and Tucson, to the state’s most rural regions, some of the tribes face vastly different issues and priorities.
That includes the Havasupai Tribe, whose capital, Supai, is located in a remote portion of the Grand Canyon accessible only by foot, mule or horseback.
Havasupai Chairman Thomas Siyuja was at Thursday’s event and talked about some of his tribe’s unique challenges.
“With the climate change, our problem we have with that is all the flooding that we get over the years,” he said. “Trying to relocate some of the people up on top of the Canyon.”
Other Havasupai priorities include the Grand Canyon Protection Act — which would limit development on more than 1 million acres of federal land around the Canyon and add mining restrictions — and a project to bring internet service to his tribe via a fiber-optic line from Mohave County.
After her remarks, Harris got a look at the Gila River tribe’s $83 million Reclaimed Water Pipeline Project. The tribe broke ground on the project in May, with funding from the U.S. Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The nearly 20-mile pipeline will be used to help recycle treated wastewater.
“And so this reclaimed pipeline system, this infrastructure, it’s going to help to conserve water, it’s going to help to address the overall conservation of water, as we look at the critical needs and the levels in Lake Mead and along the Colorado River.”