RENO, Nev. — In her first address to Indian Country as the new U.S. interior secretary, Sally Jewell made an emotional pledge Thursday to help right past wrongs against Native Americans and work with tribes "nation-to-nation" to protect their sovereignty and develop their cultural and natural resources to become more economically self-reliant.
Jewell, who became secretary in April, fought back tears and paused to compose herself near the close of her remarks to about 300 delegates of the National Congress of American Indians in Reno. The casino-ballroom audience gave her a standing ovation.
In her speech, the former Seattle CEO of outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc. told of her childhood experiences with Native Americans growing up in and around the Puget Sound area of Washington state. She then recounted the "different view" she had when she returned as secretary this spring to a favorite kayaking spot at an island near Olympia across from reservation land.
"I thought about my obligations to you," Jewell said. She paused, then added, "I'm going to get emotional here.
"The federal government does not have a proud legacy when it comes to upholding our promises," said Jewell, her voice cracking. "I can't reverse all of that in a four-year period of time, but I can make important progress."
She vowed to be an advocate in the federal government for tribes, saying it is part of her job as secretary to help set them up for success for generations. She added President Barack Obama and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "opened a new chapter" in relations with Indian Country.
"I will keep that chapter open," Jewell said. "I will take it to the next level if I'm allowed to do that with your help."
Jewell touched on a variety of topics during her address, including the importance of exploiting opportunities to develop both traditional and renewable sources of energy on federal tribal lands. She repeated concerns she raised in her first appearance before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last month about an "embarrassing" backlog of needed repairs at tribal schools.
"We know education is the opportunity that lifts Indian children from the current, into the future," Jewell said. "We've spent $2 billion since 2002 on schools, but they still are in poor conditions, many of them."
She drew applause when she later advocated "culturally appropriate education that you direct."
"My North Star in supporting you will be promoting tribal self-governance and self-determination, recognizing the inherent right of tribal governments to make your own decisions," she said. "You know better than any of us do what you need in your tribes and in your communities."
Jewell's appearance came a day after Obama announced the establishment of a White House Council on Native American Affairs to promote a healthier relationship among the United States and tribal governments. The leaders of 30 federal departments and agencies will serve on the council, which is charged with aiding tribes with economic development, transportation, housing and health care.
"My boss in the Oval Office cares deeply about you," she told the gathering Thursday in explaining how leaders in a variety of Cabinet agencies will work more closely on issues important to tribes.
Arlen Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said Jewell's upbringing in the Pacific Northwest and her connection to the environment struck a chord with tribal leaders, who seemed "very pleased" with what she said.
"I think a lot of the tribes didn't really know who she was, but listening to her, I think they can be confident she's going to be really good for Indian Country," Melendez said in an interview after the speech.
Jewell told the gathering her family moved to Seattle from England just before she turned 4. Some of her earliest memories included proudly wearing a tribal mask made of cardboard when they would go to Blake Island in Puget Sound "to watch the Indian dancers."
"The introduction to tribal culture – even though that is sort of a tourist thing, it actually is a very powerful and spiritual thing as well," she said.
Later, she became attuned to the large population of homeless people in downtown Seattle – "largely Indians."
"The contrast between the pride and the history of Native people in Seattle with the reality on the ground was very striking," she said.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians and lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, said he agreed that Jewell is well-positioned to build on better relations that began in Obama's first term.
"We believe that chapter – and that door – is wide open now and will lead to a new level of understanding in this nation-to-nation relationship," Keel said.