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Honoring American Indian-Alaska Native Heritage

Eric D. Hargan
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
November 21, 2017
Washington, DC

As Americans, preserving the heritage of Indians and Alaska Natives across the generations is tremendously important. It is special to us for many reasons, but one is that it is simply the oldest heritage we as Americans have.

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning everyone!

Thank you so much, Jane [Norton], for that introduction, and thank you all for joining us here today to celebrate American Indian-Alaska Native Heritage Month and learn a little about our important partnerships and programs in Indian Country.

Even as someone who’s now been at HHS in two administrations and for several years, there is always more to learn about the great work that our colleagues and partners are doing, so thank you for coming here not just to celebrate, but to learn.

This year’s theme for our event is “Partnering Across Nations and Generations: Supporting Healthy, Sustainable and Thriving Native Communities.”

You’ll be hearing about this topic from Rear Admiral [Michael] Weahkee, our acting head of IHS   [Indian Health Service], and from Administrator Lance Robertson of the Administration for Community living.

This year’s event allows us to shed special light on the programs we run in partnership with tribes at ACL.

But it’s also worth pointing out that, as many of you know, nearly every corner of HHS has some connection to tribal communities.

ACF runs human services programs through the Administration for Native Americans, including immersion schools that help keep Indian languages alive for future generations.

NIH and CDC work with tribes to advance our understanding of public health problems and support tribal governments in their own work.

SAMHSA, especially as the opioid crisis has taken hold, plays an important role in substance abuse prevention and treatment in tribal communities.

But today isn’t just about discussing the programs we run and the services we provide.

As Americans, preserving the heritage of Indians and Alaska Natives across the generations is tremendously important. It is special to us for many reasons, but one is that it is simply the oldest heritage we as Americans have. In fact, Indian heritage goes back so far that some pieces of it, we don’t really know whom we can trace it to.

I grew up in a small town called Mounds, Illinois, a town of 810 people. In other words, not even the size of an HHS operating division.

Mounds is in the southern part of the state, and it’s called Mounds because of the great monumental earthworks that were built in the area over the centuries. Some of them make up what’s called the Cahokia Mounds, which were part of a huge ancient city called Cahokia. These monuments remain across the area, in Illinois and Kentucky, today.

They were built so far back in the past—hundreds and even thousands of years ago—that we don’t know which tribes descend from their builders.

They are remarkable sites and a remarkable reminder of how deep Indian heritage runs in America.

This deep heritage—the fact that tribal governments in some cases predate our own—is part of what makes the government-to-government relationship we have between the tribes and the federal government important.

Under this administration, we take that relationship very seriously. One way we demonstrated that was by holding a meeting of the Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee for the first time in Indian Country, in Cherokee Nation. It was a great opportunity for the STAC to interact with senior HHS officials on a range of issues.

Another sign of our commitment is the hard work we’ve put into trying to improve the quality of care provided through the Indian Health Service.

Earlier this year, for instance, IHS announced new waiting time standards for primary care and urgent care, reflecting our deep commitment to helping ensure access to high quality care for IHS patients.

At the STAC meeting in September, Secretary [Tom] Price also announced a reform to the approval process for tribal capital projects, raising the threshold that triggers the need for department-level approval. We are removing the approval requirement entirely for capital projects that are funded by tribes and authorized by Congress or funded by tribal dollars.

That reform, we’re proud to say, came out of conversations Secretary Price had with tribal leaders.

Many challenges remain, but by forging better, more accountable and productive relationships between the federal government and the tribes, more progress can be made.

Under President Trump, our government is deeply committed to preserving and enhancing the health and well-being of American Indians and Alaska Natives, and supporting their already strong communities.

We like to categorize our work into three strategic focuses: healthier people, stronger communities, and a safer country. A strong government-to-government relationship helps us accomplish all three.

It is an honor to join you all here today and it is an honor to work on these issues with all of you.

Thank you again for joining us here today to celebrate the special partnerships we have with tribes and the special heritage held dear by American Indians and Alaska Natives. 

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on November 21, 2017