Kamala Harris has vowed to address the ‘shameful past’ of America’s European explorers, saying they ‘ushered in a wave of devastation’ for Native Americans when they arrived 500 years ago.
The vice president was speaking at the National Congress of American Indians 78th Annual Convention, held this year in Portland, Oregon.
She spoke the day after Columbus Day – which has also been formally recognized for the first time this year as ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’ by President Joe Biden .
Harris told the delegates: ‘Since 1934, every October, the United States has recognized the voyage of the European explorers who first landed on the shores of the Americas.
‘But that is not the whole story. That has never been the whole story.
‘Those explorers ushered in a wave of devastation for Tribal nations — perpetrating violence, stealing land, and spreading disease.’
Harris said that the Biden administration would work to right the wrongs inflicted on Native American communities for generations.
On Monday, Biden signed an executive order designed to help Native American communities with educational and economic opportunities.
‘We must not shy away from this shameful past, and we must shed light on it and do everything we can to address the impact of the past on Native communities today,’ said Harris.
‘Native Americans are more likely to live in poverty, to be unemployed, and often struggle to get quality healthcare and to find affordable housing.’
She pointed out that Native Americans make up a large proportion of the armed forces, yet their communities are severely deprived.
‘This persistent inequity, this persistent injustice is not right. And the pandemic has only made it worse,’ she added.
She said that Biden’s $3.5 trillion infrastructure will help Native American communities, highlighting improved internet access and better facilities.
‘This bill represents the largest infrastructure investment our nation has made since before World War II and presents, right now, an important opportunity to strengthen Indian Country,’ she said.
‘It would set aside funding for tribal bridge projects and the Tribal Transportation Program.
‘It would provide Native communities with funding to build out brand new water infrastructure, and connect Native communities with high speed internet. All while creating good union jobs, millions of good union jobs.
‘And as Native communities have led for generations upon generation on protecting our environment, I should also mention that this bill would also put millions of dollars toward making sure our communities are resilient in the face of climate change.’
Harris pointed out that Native women and girls are ‘missing and murdered at alarming rates.’
She also noted that Native American voters ‘are being systematically denied access to the ballot box’, and urged Congress to pass The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – both of which are designed to reduce voter suppression.
‘I believe strongly that we right now have a chance to change things, to improve things, to be better for this generation and for the seven generations to come,’ she said, referencing a Native American belief that we should make decisions about how we live today based on how our decisions will impact the future seven generations.
‘Because I believe that we are at the beginning of a new era and a moment of incredible transformation.
‘As we work to rebuild our economy, as we work to restore our democracy, we have the opportunity to build a better future together.’
Last year, as presidential candidate, Harris spoke at the conference and pledged to add 500,000 acres of land into trust for federally-recognized Indian tribes.
She also promised to improve the Indian Health Service, which serves 2.2 million people.