Chairperson Aaron Payment opening the National Congress of American Indians' Third General Assembly in 2016. (Source: NCAI twitter)

In 2009, the then Vice President Biden was charged with the duty to formulate the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to save the auto industry and to stimulate the economy with shovel-ready projects.  

So, it must be gratifying for President Biden to pick up where we left off as a country and attempt to fix the aging American infrastructure, rebuild roads, bridges, water systems, schools, and create newer and greener energy platforms, public transit, and high-speed rail, and broadband upgrades.   

As Chairperson of the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the 1st Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians, I know that Tribal infrastructure needs to mirror that of our surrounding jurisdictions.  

ARRA funds helped one of my Tribe’s five reservation sites connect to the city water-sewer system.  This was a win-win as our tribal use expedites the debt pay down on the City system.  I hope to see mutual gain projects as part of the 2021 infrastructure plan.  Given a number of my Tribal Citizens who live in affected areas of Flint, I support a large number of infrastructure funds committed to replacing the old and dangerous water lines in Flint, the many cities in Michigan, and across America.

As we glimpse the light at the end of the long tunnel these last 12 months represent, we wait in hopeful anticipation to return to community gatherings, pow wows, barbeques, dining out, and simply making safe human contact. 

The pandemic has laid bare the technological deficiencies and lack of connectivity and a need for a national investment in places like our native communities.  Our new normal requires an improved ability to connect and communicate through the use of technology. To sustain this new way of life, we need to invest heavily in physical and virtual infrastructure.  

President Biden’s announcement for a $2 trillion-dollar investment holds great promise for not only upgrading our virtual environment but sustaining it over several years for upgrades.  Indian Country is no exception to connectivity needs on the reservation and vast acres that cross our treaty and indigenous territories. A comprehensive broadband connectivity plan must include Tribes and Sovereign Nations as partners.  

In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has made clear her commitment to “fix the damn roads.”  Michigan is the birthplace of the auto industry and while some in 2008 felt we should be allowed to fail, it is time to plan for our future in terms of evolution towards a more sustainable and respectful use of our Mother Earth and its waters. 

The President’s infrastructure bill will dedicate billions of dollars for roads, bridges, and new infrastructure that embraces innovation towards cleaner cars.  With Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, Michigan is well poised to once again lead the way in the auto industry while transitioning to a multi-faceted energy supply chain like electric charging stations positioned at point-to-point distances.  

Seed funding for private industry to make the leap forward will be critical.  Transitioning from big oil to clean energy will usher in a new era of energy independence.  I am confident that tribes would be willing to lead the way as hosts to charging station sites, helping stimulate the value-added tourism across our Great Lake State.  

Tribes ceded over 500 million acres of land to make this country great and obligated the Federal Government to provide “health, education and social welfare” into perpetuity.  

The Sault Tribe and four others ceded 14 million acres in 1836, which qualified Michigan for statehood.  The Biden-Harris Build Back Better plan for our future includes a commitment to equity. 

It is my hope that the infrastructure bill will be bi-partisan and provide an equitable distribution to tribes in honor of the treaty and trust obligation. As tribes are integrated into our larger communities and are usually the largest employers in our respective counties, this allocation is a winning proposition for our surrounding communities. 

Chairperson Payment holds a doctorate degree in education, a master’s in education specialist, a master’s in education administration, and a master’s in public administration. He also serves as the first vice president of the National Congress of American Indians, president of the Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, and president of the United Tribes of Michigan