VP Kamala Harris visits the Gila River Indian Community on her first trip to Indian Country
Gila River Indian Community Elder Bernice Lyons was one of many community elders who showed up at the Gila River Crossing Community School on Thursday by 9 a.m., excited to hear Vice President Kamala Harris speak during her first visit to Indian Country.
Lyons, 72, never imagined seeing such a powerful public figure visit her small tribal nation, but when she saw the ad in her local paper about Harris’ visit, she jumped at the chance to be there.
“I said, ‘Hell yeah, I’m going to see here,’” Lyons said.
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Even though Lyons waited more than three hours to hear Harris talk, she enjoyed visiting with everyone who attended and said it was worth the wait.
“I’m glad she came down,” Lyons said, adding she was happy Harris got to see what the Gila River Indian Community is like in person.
Harris’ stop on the Gila River Indian Community was an opportunity to highlight the Biden/Harris administration’s work with tribal nations across the U.S., including the projects funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said hosting Harris gives them a chance to express their deep appreciation to the Biden/Harris administration for their “true partnership and investment” in tribal communities.
Lewis said GRIC has always made it a point to work with any president’s administration to their best ability as a sovereign nation. But Lewis said that the Biden/Harris administration has taken partnerships to a whole new level and has brought tribes to the table in a meaningful way.
“They are working with us on important business and solutions for each tribe’s unique needs,” he said, noting that he can easily point to the successful partnerships with the administration, including the federally funded projects.
Lewis said Harris is a true partner of Indian Country who shares and respects the values Indigenous people hold dear, including finding innovative ways to address the water shortage impacting the Southwest and protecting Indigenous children and families.
Lewis introduced Harris, and she was greeted with applause from a crowded gym at the Gila River Crossing Community School around 12:50 p.m. on Thursday. She expressed her gratitude for the hospitality of the Gila River Indian Community and tribal leaders.
“It is so wonderful to be here,” Harris said, thanking the community for the warm welcome she and her husband have received. “It means so much to us, and it means so much to the president, that we are able to be here with you to thank you for the partnership and the work that we have done and will continue to do together.”
Harris’ 15-minute speech touched on topics specific to Indian Country, including the economy, climate change, missing and murdered Indigenous people, veterans, voting rights, and the Indian Child Welfare Act.
“President Joe Biden and I believe that the bonds between our nations are sacred,” Harris said. “We believe we have a duty to safeguard and strengthen those bonds, to uphold our trust and treaty obligations, to honor tribal sovereignty, and to ensure tribal self-determination.”
An example she shared was how the Gila River Indian Community successfully built the Gila River Crossing Community School through its partnerships.
Harris said the Gila River Indian Community is the first tribe to partner with the federal government through an innovative leasing program to build a fully Indigenous-built, Indigenous-owned, and Indigenous-run school.
An attendee takes a photo of Vice President Kamala Harris speaking at the Gila River Crossing Community School on July 6, 2023. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
Another big point shared by Harris is how it is the administration’s duty to address the deep disparities that persist across Indian Country.
“Disparities that are the result of centuries of broken treaties, harmful assimilation policies, displacement, dispossession, and violence,” she said. “We have a duty to make sure that all Native people have the opportunity to thrive.”
A way to help Indigenous people thrive, Harris said, is through economic opportunity because turning any dream into a reality requires access to capital and financial services such as loans or lines of credit.
“As we know, many Native communities are cut off from these essential resources,” she said, noting that Indigenous households are more than three times as likely to lack access to traditional financial institutions.
To address this inequity, Harris said the administration has invested more than $500 million in Native entrepreneurs and small businesses and is investing millions more in community banks.
Harris also emphasized how Indigenous communities continue to be at the forefront of addressing the climate crisis, and every year tribal land is increasingly threatened by wildfire, drought, and floods.
“Native peoples have served as responsible stewards of our environment for millennia,” she said, “And in order to create enduring solutions to the climate crisis, we must then rely on the knowledge and the experience of Native communities.”
The way to do that, Harris said, is by investing in Indigenous-led — not merely Indigenous-consulted — climate-resilient infrastructure projects.
Harris said the administration is proud of its progress in the partnerships developed with tribal nations across the country, but she understands there is still much to do.
“Together, 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,” she 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.”
After hearing Harris and tribal officials speak, Gila River Indian Community member Cheyenna Jackson said it provided great insight into not only what the tribal government is doing, but what the federal government is doing, too.
“The future looks bright for what they have planned,” Jackson said.
Jackson lives in the Gila River Indian Community and said she never thought she’d see a vice president visit, but having Harris visit shows the administration cares about the community.
“It makes us feel more important rather than being pushed to the back burner,” she added.
Harris also met with several Indigenous youths from the Gila River Indian Community, including Miss Gila River Lehua Lani Dosela and Jr. Miss Gila River Eleanor Lynch.
“It’s beautiful being able to see our community involved in an amazing event,” Dosela, 23, said,
Dosela got to sing the National Anthem in her traditional language as part of the opening remarks for Harris, and she was excited to be part of it.
“This is a big moment not only for me because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but also for our community,” Dolsea said. She added that hearing Harris give a speech in her community was eye-opening because it showed her what her community can do.
“Having that connection with the (federal) government is amazing,” Dosela said.
Lynch, 14, echoed Dosela’s excitement in Harris’ visit.
She said that it was an amazing experience for her to participate in the event because she got to talk with Harris in person, and she appreciated Harris’s advice to the Indigenous youth of her community.
“Memorable advice that she gave us was that we’re the future generation and that it is good we’re being able to represent our community,” Lynch said.