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Remarks at White House Tribal Nations Conference

Wednesday, November 5, 2012

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank
Remarks at White House Tribal Nations Conference

Good morning. Thank you all for coming.  And thanks to Secretary Salazar and our friends here at the Department of the Interior for hosting the White House Tribal Nations Conference. 

Just a few months ago, the Commerce Department, our Minority Business Development Agency, and the White House teamed up—we hosted the first-ever White House Forum on Business in Indian Country.  

It was an honor to meet with tribal business leaders, and today it’s yet another honor to be with a broader group of tribal leaders as we continue to strengthen the government-to-government relationship.

For the past three years, we’ve seen steady economic growth in Indian Country and across the U.S.  But as the president has said many times—we’re not going to rest until everyone who wants a job, has a job.

That’s why our top priority at the Commerce Department—and across the administration—is to accelerate economic growth in order to bring more jobs, more opportunities, and more prosperity to all Americans.  

That includes everyone from the Native-owned enterprise that is bringing renewable energy to a reservation, to the American Indian entrepreneur living in a big city, who wants to hire a family member to help launch a startup.

We need to do all we can to empower job creators throughout Indian Country who are working to build better lives for themselves, their families, and their communities.

I’ll give just a few examples of how we are doing that through the work of the Commerce Department.

First, the Minority Business Development Agency—MBDA—has worked aggressively to help Native-owned businesses. I already mentioned the first-ever White House forum that we held with tribal business leaders in September. We are planning a follow up to this meeting in the spring.  

In addition, we have been working to reorganize MBDA. In that process, we reached out to this community and asked how we could serve budding entrepreneurs and business owners more effectively.

As a result, I’m pleased to say that we awarded $6.6 million for five new business centers—centers that are specifically aimed at helping American Indian and Alaska Native entrepreneurs and businesses.

These centers are based in Anchorage, Bismarck, Santa Fe, Tulsa, and Central California. They’re going to provide more tools to help American Indian and Alaska Native businesses compete and grow.

And, I should note that MBDA has a strong track record to build on. Over the past three years, they’ve helped nearly 2,000 Native-owned businesses secure more than $1.1 billion in contracts and capital.

A second bureau at Commerce that has a strong connection to Indian Country is the Economic Development Administration. EDA is making critical investments that speed up business development in economically-distressed tribal areas.

For example, EDA helped award a grant of $1.7 million last year to the United Tribes Technical College which serves about 20 tribes in the Dakotas and Montana.

They’re going to use this investment to do environmental risk mitigation along the Missouri River. Specifically, they’re going to train about 1,000 people while also working to springboard about 15 new businesses.

Smaller EDA grants can go a long way too. For example, back in 2009, we provide $100,000 to support a Native-run tannery in a village of about 500 people in Alaska. As you know, businesses like that often serve as the backbone of the local economy.

A third bureau at Commerce that is supporting Indian Country is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. NTIA is connecting communities to each other and to the world through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). This includes about 50 projects that are helping tribal communities.

For example, we awarded $32 million to bring hundreds of miles of critical broadband to rural Navajo Nation in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. This project is about three-fourths complete—bringing connectivity to about 30,000 households, 1,000 businesses and hundreds of educational and healthcare facilities.

In some cases, the communities getting these BTOP grants don’t even have phone lines. So, we’re helping Indian Country take not just a step forward in telecommunications, but in fact a giant leap.

I should note that Commerce also coordinates closely with other federal partners. For example, in July, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helped with the inaugural First Stewards Symposium at the National Museum of the American Indian just down the street.

This event brought together tribal leaders and scientists to discuss how we can address the impacts of climate change on tribal coastal communities.

But as I close, I want to mention one final example that I think all Americans should know—regardless of whether or not you are from Indian Country.

Many of you have likely seen the rich data and information coming out of the 2010 Census. I want to thank all of you who served as advocates in your communities for being counted as part of the Census.

Earlier this year, we released what’s called a “Census brief” on the American Indian and Alaska Native Population.  

It highlighted the fact that 5.2 million people identified themselves as part of the American Indian or Alaska Native community. That was a staggering jump of 27 percent compared to 2000.

Not only does that kind of information give us a better picture of who we are as Americans, but it opens people’s eyes to the fact that the contributions from Indian Country are more powerful than is sometimes recognized.

So my commitment to all of you today is this: The Commerce Department will continue to listen closely to all of you—and to people throughout Indian Country. And we’ll take action to empower and support your communities, as we have over the past four years.

Please reach out to my Senior Adviser on Native American Affairs, Dee Alexander, who many of you already know. Dee is eager to hear your questions and suggestions related to economic development and cultural resources. Dee serves as my Department’s Tribal Consultation Official.

MBDA National Director David Hinson as well as staff from EDA are also here and will be attending the economic development breakout session. They look forward to hearing from you today.

Our continued dialogue and partnership is absolutely crucial as we expand the economy and create jobs—from rural reservations and villages to America’s major cities. I look forward to our continued work together over the next four years. Thank you.