With cheers -- and pointed questions, too -- Native American leaders gathered in Washington to consult with President Obama.
I noted that President Obama had a little trouble getting the last pen out of the box when he signed a presidential memorandum on tribal consultation during the Tribal Nations Conference at the Department of Interior this month. The memo, directing all federal agencies to submit detailed tribal consultation plans in the next 90 days, is similar to one signed by Bill Clinton 15 years ago. The Clinton memo drifted into obscurity during the waning years of his presidency, with very little follow up. President Obama, however, promised a cheering crowd including 400 tribal leaders that his administration would go far beyond “paying lip service” to American Indian tribes. “I get it,” he said. “I am on your side.”
Eleven tribal leaders got the chance to ask President Obama some direct questions following his opening remarks. The questions reflected the high regard Indians have for him but were tinged with a healthy skepticism. Ben Shelly, vice president of the Navajo Nation, wanted to know “What’s gonna happen to us at the end of your term?…I really don’t want to come back here and complain again about how we’ve been lied to.”
“What can you do to make some of these plans solid?” Shelly wanted to know.
President Obama really didn’t answer other to note that treaties are already supposed to be solid. (That might account for his trouble with the pen).
In holding the conference, Obama made good on his campaign promise to meet with tribal leaders during the first year of his presidency. Each of the 564 federally recognized tribes was invited to send one representative. Conveniently, the conference was held during November, Native American history month that was once again declared by way of the traditional presidential proclamation on October 30. Although it’s difficult to ignore the obvious political exploitation of the season, (when America thinks November and Thanksgiving, it thinks Indians), tribal leaders seemed cautiously hopeful.
In his opening remarks, President Obama described the conference as “a unique and historic event, the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders in our history.” From the White House videos, all the Indians in the room were excited to be there, applauding and hollering their support for Obama, one of the most popular U. S. presidents in Indian Country to date.
National Congress of American Indians president Jefferson Keel, who introduced the president, used his time to ask about the controversial Carcieri fix aimed to reverse the Supreme Court ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar that restricts the Department of Interior from taking land into trust for those tribes that were federally recognized after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Land taken into federal trust is removed from the jurisdiction of local and state governments. Tribes assert they want to use trust land to build housing and other facilities for their communities; some states fear that tribes want the land to pursue casino gambling.
Although Obama did not answer Keel’s question, officials in his administration including Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Larry Echohawk of the Bureau of Indian Affairs have indicated support for such a reversal of the Carieri ruling.
Obama told tribal leaders how much the U. S. government has failed them. This is course didn’t come as news to anybody at the conference. He listed the always shocking Indian Country statistics; 80 percent unemployment, 25 percent of the population living in poverty, 12 percent without access to clean water, crime rates more than 20 times higher than the national average, one in three Indian women raped in their lifetimes, etc. Contrary to speculation, Obama did not take the opportunity to extend a formal apology to American Indians for historically misguided federal policies as other nations, such as Canada and Australia, have done for their indigenous groups.
His promises and assurances to Indian Country were for the most part broadly stated, for example a commitment to ensure that “Indians will have a seat at the table,” in decisions and policy making that affect their communities. Obama stressed the appointment of several American Indians to high offices in his administration, including Kimberly Tee Hee of the Cherokee Nation as White House Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, Jodi Archambaulte Gillette of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe as Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Yvette Roubideaux of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as Director of the Indian Health Service, and Larry Echohawk of the Pawnee Tribe, as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also noted funding increases to American Indian agencies during year one of his term: $3 billion of Recovery Act funds have been allotted to agencies serving Indian Country, such as the Indian Health Service, and his budget proposals support increases for IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Obama expressed strong support for the Tribal Law and Order Act, designed to improve response to and prosecution of crimes in Indian Country by giving more local control to tribal law enforcement agencies and requiring greater accountability for federal agencies in charge of public safety on Indian lands. The Act is headed to the Senate. Obama lauded efforts by Attorney General Eric Holder, who has hosted several “listening sessions” on reservations. It should be noted that Janet Reno, Attorney General during the Clinton years, hosted similar sessions.
Other remarks and questions to President Obama from tribal leaders were varied. One of my favorites was from Alecia Reft, president of the Karluk Village on Kodiak Island, Alaska. When Obama called on her unexpectedly, Reft kept a promise to an elder who works at the Safeway store in her village. “Erlinda said to make sure and tell you ‘hi’ and that she loves you very much.”
Obama said to tell Erlinda, “I love her back.”
Chairman John Berrey of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma asked Obama about the Tar Creek Superfund site, which the EPA named as one of the most toxic areas in the U. S. The site is located largely in the Quapaw community. Berrey recently told Indianz.com that representatives from Obama’s staff have already contacted him saying they expect to schedule a visit shortly.
Tribal leaders spent the remainder of the day attending three panels, all hosted by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, dealing with Economic Development, Natural Resources, Energy, Environment and Agriculture, Public Safety and Housing, Education, Health Care, and Labor. Many cabinet leaders sat on these panels and took questions from the audience.
Leaders also got the opportunity to attend the gala grand opening of NCAI’s Embassy of Tribal Nations on November 3.
President Obama has gained serious currency with this Indian by providing me with something substantive to write about during the month of November other than the dreaded “Indian reaction to Thanksgiving” pieces that are always requested by mainstream editors. If Obama manages to keep a substantial portion of his promises to Indian Country, this Thanksgiving holiday will be one for Indians to remember and celebrate in years ahead.