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Behind the scenes of a historic day

Heading to the Tribal Nations Conference?” said a gentleman I assumed was a tribal leader outside the Donovan House Hotel the morning of President Barack Obama’s historic meeting with more than 400 of Indian country’s top leadership.

“Yes!’ I replied as he offered to share his cab. It turns out my cabmate was James Ransom, chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York.

We arrived at the Interior Department after 7 a.m. The line for tribal leaders was five people deep and stretched around the block. Each arrival greeted by chanting and drumming from a dozen people across the street carrying banners and signs pushing for the release of imprisoned activist Leonard Peltier.

The much shorter line for press had only a dozen journalists waiting to get checked in. A prior news release warned space was limited. It appeared only about three dozen journalists received credentials. A TV journalist in line said her photographer was already inside having braved the morning chill at 4 a.m. to secure a prime spot on the balcony of the Sidney R. Yates auditorium where most press had to sit.

This day was the beginning of a new chapter.

The night before, a tribal chairman from the Great Lakes region told how he hired someone to get in line for him at 5 a.m. Apparently a lobbyist agreed to stand in line for another chief executive around the same time. It paid off for the Great Lakes chairman; he secured a front row seat.

As they waited for the president’s arrival, laughter and chatter filled the room as everyone re-acquainted with old friends and made new ones while posing for photos, sharing jokes and checking messages. The Who’s Who of tribal nations included noted elder Joseph Medicine Crow, of the Crow Nation, who was a recipient of the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom and who was also honored as Elder of the Year by the National Indian Education Association. Members of Congress, including Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., made their way around the room. I noticed Lance Gumbs, Shinnecock Indian Nation, who along with leaders of other state recognized tribes had complained about not being included on the invitation list with federally recognized tribes. I guess persistence paid off.

Those wanting to rub elbows with these movers and shakers had the opportunity to do so the night before at the Tribal Leaders Reception hosted by the National Museum of the American Indian. Working the crowd were Jeff Doctor, Seneca, running for Congress in North Carolina; and Chris Deschene, Navajo, an Arizona State Representative who is getting ready to run for secretary of state. Many didn’t have a ticket to the White House event but wanted to be part of activities built around it.

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Back at the main event, business suits outnumbered those wearing tribal regalia. Marcus Levings, chairman of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Tribe of North Dakota, stood out with his eagle feather headdress, which he later gave to the president. Others, like San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. kept it simple, but wore items from home like a necklace made of peridot stones mined on his reservation, a silver bolo tie bearing his tribal seal, and on the bandana covering his head like the Apache chiefs of old, an eagle plume.

I met Tishmall Turner, one of the lucky Native journalists covering one of the biggest events in Indian country. Pool cameras for the major networks secured prime spots in the room. I wished on this day I was with the president’s Press Corp, members of which sat in front. Turner was there to take photos for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association. “I wasn’t approved for a credential, but I made another request. I think the Native media should be given priority for this event,” Turner said.

“Tribal leaders were told not to bring cameras,” said Turner. That didn’t seem to be the case as cameras flashed throughout the day. Others took photos and recorded the president’s message with their cell phones.

The night before, a tribal chairman from the Great Lakes region told how he hired someone to get in line for him at 5 a.m.

Excited applause filled the air as President Obama entered the auditorium. After his speech and the signing of the Tribal Consultation Memorandum, elected leaders raised their hands for the question and answer portion of the program.

In a meeting the day before, organized by NCAI, 12 leaders representing various regions had been selected to address the president, but apparently no one informed the commander-in-chief as he randomly selected people. As a result, one region (Alaska) received more attention as the president unknowingly picked three people from there to ask questions.

After the president left and as cabinet members began their dialogue with tribal leaders, I headed back to my hotel room to download photos. It was there, in the quiet of my room, and while calling my mother that the enormity of this event sunk in. “He (President Obama) has to remember the treaties and what was promised to the Apaches,” she said. “The Chiricahua Mountains and Apache Leap are all sacred to us. My grandfather told me stories about these places. He needs to know how we feel about what was taken away from us. I’m glad you’re there to witness this.”

Two speakers summed up the mood that day. Wilfred Cleveland, Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin president, acknowledged past champions of Indian rights including Roger Jourdain, Red Lake Chippewa and Wendell Chino, Mescalero Apache. “We are here today to follow those footprints,” he said. Later in the day another speaker said it’s time to write new chapters in American history. This day was the beginning of a new chapter.

Mary Kim Titla is a journalist living in Arizona. She can be reached at