Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday visited the Gila River Indian Community as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing commitment to Native American communities and tout its Investing in America agenda.
Harris touched on a variety of topics, including support for climate-resilient infrastructure, voting rights, child welfare, loans for Native entrepreneurs, and mental health resources. She delivered her remarks at Gila Crossing Community School, which is operated by the Gila River Indian Community and is funded through a Bureau of Indian Affairs 105(I) lease program.
The vice president met with Gila River youth leaders prior to her speech.
“I was able to meet with some of the younger leaders before I came out here and when I look at them, I know the future of our world is so bright,” Harris said.
She was welcomed on stage by Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community.
Harris said President Joe Biden shares with her a belief that their administration must address disparities Native communities face.
These are “disparities that are the result of centuries of broken treaties, harmful assimilation policies, displacement, dispossession, and violence,” Harris said. “We have a duty to make sure that all Native people have the opportunity to thrive.”
Part of that duty, Harris said, is providing access to economic opportunities.
“There are people with big dreams for the future … but turning a dream into a reality requires access to capital and financial services, home loans, small business loans, lines of credit,” Harris said, adding that the administration has directed investments totaling more than $500 million in Native entrepreneurs and small businesses.
According to Harris, the administration will continue to put millions more dollars into community banks, which predominantly operate in overlooked and underserved communities.
“They are run by people who live and work in the community that they serve – people who know firsthand the incredible potential in the community, people who understand the culture of the community, the language of the community, and people who then work every day to realize the potential of the community,” Harris said.
In addition, the Biden-Harris administration pledges to support Native-led climate-resilient infrastructure projects, she said.
“Native peoples have served as responsible stewards of our environment for millennia, and in order to create enduring solutions to the climate crisis, we must then rely on the knowledge and the experience of Native communities,” Harris said.
One of those projects is the Gila River Indian Community’s Reclaimed Water Pipeline Project. The pipeline is a new water infrastructure project that will help ensure access to clean water and help reduce dependence on the Colorado River.
The 19-mile pipeline will transport reclaimed water, thus reducing the community’s use of Colorado River water. The $83 million project is to be completed by the end of 2024.
Harris emphasized the administration’s efforts to protect the freedom to vote for Native communities.
“In our democracy, the freedom to vote should be sacred,” Harris said. “Every eligible voter has a fundamental right to cast a ballot and make their voice heard. But we know for Native Americans that right has been hard fought and hard-won.”
Harris assured the group that she and Biden will continue to call on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the Native American Voting Rights Act.
The bills would set national standards for voting, including two weeks of early voting, drop boxes in convenient locations, and same-day automatic voter registration. They also are working to put voter registration sites in Indian Health Service locations, she said.
Harris said while she is proud of the progress that has been made, she knows there is more to do in addressing missing and murdered Indigenous people.
She ended by addressing the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Supreme Court’s rejection of the attempt to dismantle it, and the importance of protecting not only the Indian Child Welfare Act but gains that have been made for Native communities.
“We will continue to work together in partnership toward a future where all of our children can realize their God-given potential, a better future for this generation and seven generations to come,” Harris said. “In that fight, together we will work to continue to strengthen this partnership, to count on your leadership, and to work together in support of our common cause.”
May Mercado, an elder of the Gila River community and the attendance clerk at Gila Crossing Community School, said she was honored that Harris chose to visit.
“She’s so high up next to the president that it’s really a great honor for her to come out here to our small reservation and talk to us,” Mercado said. “It’s just a great feeling, and we are so proud to have her.”
She said she hopes the administration will address helping people obtain homes.
“We see a lot of people out here that need homes,” Mercado said. “They’re trying to build homes, but it’s a slow process. No funding has a lot to do with it. But we’d like to see a lot more people get the help they need as far as getting a nice place to live with their families.”
For Ariana Blackwater, president of the Akimel O’odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council, her biggest takeaway was the vice president’s concern for mental health issues.
“She really wants to advocate for us in that aspect, especially with the youth and her knowing that it ties back to unresolved generational trauma,” Blackwater said.
Blackwater, who is 18 and newly registered to vote in the Gila River community, said she was happy Harris talked about voting rights and the importance of protecting Native communities’ right to vote.
“I haven’t registered federally yet, but I know that it’s a very important thing for us because for so long we weren’t even recognized as citizens,” Blackwater said. “So having that voice in the community and in the state and being able to advocate for ourselves is such an important thing.”
She said the significance of Harris’ visit had to do with acknowledging the community.
“We are a sovereign nation, but we still recognize federal laws,” she said. “We hope to see more of her.”
Harris visited Arizona for the first time as vice president in January, when she attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ten West Link transmission line in Tonopah.
Her trip to the Gila River Indian Community is part of a “barnstorm” across the country by Biden administration officials who are highlighting the president’s Investing in America agenda. They are spotlighting public and private partnerships that are producing clean energy, rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and creating jobs.