WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration tried to reassure hundreds of Native American tribal leaders that it continues working on their behalf despite the possibility of deep federal spending cuts to avoid the "fiscal cliff."
Eight Cabinet members, led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, addressed more than 500 tribal leaders who were taking their concerns to the fourth White House Tribal Nations summit that convened Wednesday. President Barack Obama also set to appear.
The gathering "should send a loud and clear message to everyone that Barack Obama understands the importance of Indian Country and is committed to making sure we continue to make progress," Salazar said.
Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services secretary, tried to reassure the tribes the administration is working to continue providing health care to them. With two Navajo Code Talkers in the audience, she announced plans for Veterans Affairs to reimburse the Indian Health Service for treatment of Native American veterans.
Also in the morning session:
— Neal Wolin, deputy Treasury secretary, said his agency would release later in the day proposed guidance on taxing of income from tribal businesses and benefits such as housing, school clothes and burial aid that some tribes provide their members. Tribes have been insisting the assistance should be exempt under existing laws.
— Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak announced a new agreement among several federal agencies to coordinate on land management regulations particularly as it relates to protecting sacred sites.
Tribal leaders have long pushed for better recognition of their status as sovereign nations and, by most accounts, the annual meetings on Obama's watch have led to improvements. But with Republicans and Democrats in a standoff over raising taxes and cutting spending, there is worry that those strides "will be set back when the first loose rock from the fiscal cliff comes tumbling down on Indian Country," said Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians.
Two looming concerns, Pata said, are health care services and law enforcement. The tribal leaders were to hear later from the Justice Department.
The group's president, Jefferson Keel, reminded the government of its federal trust obligations to American Indian nations in a letter to congressional leadership that was endorsed by several tribes and Native American groups.
The summit follows intensified campaigns by some tribes and native groups to turn out Native American and Alaska Native voters as part of a multiracial, multiethnic coalition that helped Obama hold onto the Oval Office.
People who identified themselves as American Indians made up 1 percent of the electorate in this year's election, about the same as 2008, according to national exit polls. American Indians and Alaska Natives are about 1.7 percent of the population.
Exit polls showed Obama carried 52 percent of the American Indian vote, compared with 46 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, although the totals could vary either way by 7 points or more because of the small group of voters.
Major policy decisions aren't made at the annual gathering held at the Interior Department. But 566 American Indian and Alaska Native leaders were invited for the chance to meet with senior agency leaders and raise their concerns in what are considered nation-to-nation discussions.
The National Congress of American Indians estimates that programs for American Indians could be reduced by 20 percent or more below 2010 spending levels if Congress fails to come up with a deal and automatic cuts go into effect.
Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Walter Dasheno has a slew of topics to raise, including education, health care and putting more Native Americans on the federal bench and in senior government positions.
Dasheno's northern New Mexico community of 2,800 residents wants to build a clinic within the next five years, but he is unsure whether changes to Medicare and Medicaid and the stalemate on spending and taxes in Congress could dash residents' hopes.
"Indian people have never been in the forefront of receiving an equitable share of funds," Dasheno said.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque contributed to this report.
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