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'President-elect Biden has been very clear that he wants a cabinet that looks like America': Ambassador Keith Harper

Keith Harper, Former U.S, Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council joins Yahoo Finance's Kristin Myers to discuss policy priorities for Native Americans under an Biden administration.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: The Thanksgiving holiday week is here. So we thought it would be a good time to re-examine Native American perspectives, given the cruel history that continues to impact the community today. We're joined now by Ambassador Keith Harbor-- Harper, excuse me, the former US Ambassador and permanent Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

He's also the first Native American Ambassador for the United States, and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation Ambassador. Thank you so much for joining us today, for this conversation. You know, I think coronavirus has really heightened our awareness around a lot of the disparities facing minority communities.

And looking at the Native American community, we have some statistics here that life expectancy is 5 and 1/2 years lower than the rest of the American population. Poverty rates, slightly higher than that of Black, White, and Hispanic people in this country.

And then, when you look at the median household income, it is the lowest amongst all of those groups. And now we have this deadly pandemic that is really impacting some of the most vulnerable populations in the country. And that would include American Indians. I'm wondering what you're seeing moving forward, even in a post-pandemic world, as some of the biggest hurdles to prosperity for American Indians in this country.

KEITH HARPER: Well, Kristin, first, it's great to be with you today. Look, I think that those statistics are real. And they do paint a picture that is challenging. And it's a product, I think, of a history that is-- is-- is-- is, I think, well known to be a troubling one.

The good news is, in my estimation, is for the last 40 years or so, tribes have been empowered in what's called the era of self-determination, to have greater self-sufficiency, have greater sovereignty over their lands and communities. And what that has led to is a far better picture than what existed before that. So all in all, despite the existing challenges, I think it's a good news story in a lot of ways.

And I think there's greater prosperity in Indian Country today than ever before. I think there's greater ability to be politically active and be part of a-- the wider United States politics. You know, you just look at the recent election.

And in Arizona, the Navajo Nation voted something like 90% for Joe Biden, in record turnout. And that was the difference in the election. And you know, we have a similar picture in Wisconsin. So-- and I'm sorry, in-- in-- in Michigan. But Wisconsin is another state where a large native population.

So I think what we're seeing is greater political activism. And-- and-- and that native people are part of this conversation. There's still a lot of challenges ahead. But so long as we put tribes in charge of their own destiny, I think we will continue to see this move in the right direction.

KRISTIN MYERS: So you're bringing up a couple of really interesting points here. And I definitely want to dig into that. Especially in regards to this 2020 election. A record-breaking six Native Americans, actually, either re-elected or elected for the first time to Congress.

I'm wondering-- so we now have this new administration that is going to be coming in on January 20th. I'm wondering, as you see it, what priorities-- or what are the priorities that need to be made moving forward? I know that you're talking about 40 years of progress. But if we want to keep progress moving for American Indians, for Native Americans in this country, what does the Biden Administration really need to put front and center for tribal communities and for Native Americans at large in the country?

KEITH HARPER: It's a great question. I'd start by saying, you know, there's never been a Cabinet Secretary who is Native, in the history of the United States. And I think that should change. You know, President-elect Biden has been very clear that he wants a cabinet that looks like America.

And since there's never been a native in the cabinet, I think one both symbolic but real change is to break that glass ceiling. And I think the best and most appropriate place is in the Interior Department, so a Secretary of Interior who's Native.

I know many have talked about Deb Haaland, who is a Congresswoman from New Mexico. And I think she would be outstanding. But we need to break that glass ceiling.

And then, furthermore, we have to have processes in place that enable us to identify the challenges and then work between the federal government and the tribes to empower the tribes to address those challenges. And this is the model used in the eight years of the Obama-Biden administration.

And you will recall that every year there was what's called the Tribal Nations Conference. Where all the Cabinet Secretaries were called for full day meeting with tribal leaders. And out of that, there was a defined agenda, that led to real policy changes.

Let me give you one. There's astronomical rates of violence against women in Indian Country. A lot of times, those perpetrators are non-Indian, because they can't be prosecuted by the tribes. The tribes can only prosecute Native, Native perpetrators. Well, in the Obama administration, there was a change where they granted, with certain qualified crime-- violent crimes against women, authority to the tribes to prosecute those-- those non-natives. And that's being implemented presently.

Well, we have to get back to that, where we're working hand-in-hand, nation-to-nation, between tribes and the federal government to identify the challenges, and then come up with real-world pragmatic solutions to those.

KRISTIN MYERS: So ambassador, I only have about a minute left here with you. So I'm just going to throw this question at you. I know that you're talking about representation, especially on a cabinet level, of a Native American taking on that role.

I'm wondering-- in term of Congress, I know there are some treaties. There's one with the Cherokee Nation, I believe, where they're supposed to have a delegate inside of Congress. I'm wondering if you think that the representation in Congress is low? And if tribes should have those delegates sitting inside either the upper or lower chambers?

KEITH HARPER: Sure. It's a great question. Absolutely. Look, there was a treaty commitment for the Cherokee Nation to be able to send a delegate to Congress. And there's-- that's still the supreme law of the land. And there's no reason why the United States shouldn't be held to live up to that commitment.

And it would matter. Yes, there are more natives now in Congress than there have ever been before. But we're still only talking about a handful of people.

So having another delegate, one that was promised for in the treaty. Now, these are not just any treaties. These are treaties that gave up wide swaths of land that is now part of the United States that non-Indians live on.

I think with that kind of exchange, the least that can happen is that there is a commitment to-- to confirm and to implement the treaty commitments, such as the delegate to Congress. And the Cherokee Nation appointed a delegate in-- in Kimberly Teehee, who is a person with wide experience, was in the Obama White House. And she would be absolutely terrific in that role.