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Is Obama’s election a ‘New Day’ for Native Americans?

President Barack Obama’s election is a New Day in America. Some see him fulfilling the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. Others see a new FDR, taking on tough economic times, or a new JFK, inspiring the next generation.

For Native Americans, Obama is the hope for a New Day when America honors Native American human rights and respects the sovereignty of Native nations.

In an unprecedented effort, Obama met with tribal leaders in South Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon, Wisconsin, Montana and Minnesota to deliver his campaign message to Indian country. He dedicated his administration to work with Native nations on a “government-to-government,” “nation-to-nation” basis. Describing this as “a relationship of equals,” Obama pledged to “honor Indian treaties” and “respect Indian sovereignty.”

As a student of the Constitution, Obama understands the profound significance of his words. Even before there was a United States of America, Native nations were independent sovereigns, with territorial integrity, self-governing communities and self-sustaining ways of life. As the colonists fought for American independence, the fledgling U.S. entered its first treaties with Native nations, establishing military alliances to secure the service of Native warriors in defense of liberty.

Later, in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Congress declared: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights and liberty, they never shall be invaded or disturbed. …”

In 1789, the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and the sovereign status of Native nations was reaffirmed as an immutable fact in “the Supreme Law of the Land.” Existing treaties were approved and Indian tribes specifically recognized as governments, along with states and foreign powers. At the end of the Civil War, the U.S. repeated its original recognition of tribal members and Indian sovereignty in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment.

Despite the high ideals articulated in the Constitution, as every school child knows, the U.S. has strayed grievously from the principles of “honor” and “respect” when it came to Indian nations. Warfare, genocide, land theft, deception, forced removal, relocation, and termination are realities that shadow America’s past.

Modern federal Indian policy has moved forward by fits and starts. Roosevelt launched a “New Deal” for Native Americans in 1934, rejecting forced assimilation and seeking to revitalize tribal self-government. Lyndon Johnson energized tribal governments through civil rights legislation and the war on poverty.

Nixon ended the threat of forced termination and promoted Indian self-determination. Reagan pledged to restore tribal self-sufficiency and signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Clinton made government-to-government relations the hallmark of Native policy at a White House meeting with Native nations and traveled to Indian lands to create jobs and promote tribal economic development.

Now President Obama has the challenge to take the next great stride forward. This president, who so personifies the spirit of democracy and the transcendence of human rights, has the opportunity to lead America’s Native nations into a new era of equality, self-determination and full participation in the American family of governments.

Now it is time for America, which aspires to stand for justice, freedom and human rights for all nations around the world, to apply those principles to the Native Americans here at home.

For President Obama, the great stride forward begins with some important initial steps. The first step will be a White House meeting between the president and the elected leaders of our Native nations.

At that time, Obama should issue a new executive order explaining the constitutional nature of our nation-to-nation relationship as a relationship between equal sovereigns. To use his term, “a relationship of equals” means cooperation based on mutual consent, respecting the fundamental human right of Native Americans to our original democracies.

The second step will be to affirm the United States’ continuing obligation to honor our Indian treaties and other treaties that protect Indian rights, including the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the Russian Treaty of Cession for Alaska. Others may ask, “How long will these treaties last?” The answer is simple. They will last as long as our Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

The third step will be for the president to direct the Office of Management and Budget and each cabinet department to establish a tribal government office to work directly with Native nations on a nation-to-nation basis. Later, the cabinet officers should convene a meeting with Native nations to accomplish the goals established by tribal leaders during the White House meeting.

Finally, Native nations must be included in every legislative program and initiative that Congress enacts for the states. Tribal governments have the same needs as states for education, health care, police and fire protection, clean water and sanitation, housing, transportation and homeland security. Tribal needs for infrastructure improvement, economic development and government aid must be addressed just as states’ needs are addressed. Native nations do not want a hand out. We want respect for our constitutional rights of sovereignty and self-determination as recognized governments.

We do not believe this is too much to ask. Native nations gave America its earliest vision of representative democracy in the form of the Iroquois Confederacy. As the first members of the American governmental family, we deserve continuing respect.

From us, America received the land the people walk on. As the first guardians of mother earth, our sacred lands and reserved homelands deserve permanent recognition.

When President Obama pledged to work with tribes on a nation-to-nation basis, to honor our treaties and respect our sovereignty, his pledges had great weight and meaning.

As we look to the future, we respectfully request that President Obama keep in mind Justice Hugo Black’s statement on Indian treaties: “Great nations, like great men, should keep their word.”

Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Chairman Stanley Crooks

Shakopee Mdewakanton Dakota Community President Theresa Two Bulls

Oglala Sioux Tribe Chairman Kevin Leecy

Bois Forte Chippewa

Chairman, Minnesota Indian Affairs Council President Rodney Bordeaux

Rosebud Sioux Tribe Chairman Marcus Levings

Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Tribes Chief Barbara Lazore

Chief Monica Jacobs

Chief James W. Ransom

St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Chairman Richard Marcellais

Turtle Mt. Band of Chippewa Chairwoman Myra Pearson

Spirit Lake Dakota Nation Chairman James Steele Jr.

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes Chairman Robert Cournoyer

Yankton Sioux Tribe President Levi Pesata

Jicarilla Apache Nation Chairman Mike Selvage

Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe Governor Bruce Sanchez

Pueblo of Santa Ana Governor Anthony Ortiz

Pueblo of San Felipe Governor Chandler Sanchez

Pueblo of Acoma Governor Ivan R. Pino

Pueblo of Zia Governor Marcellino Aguino

Ohkay Owingeh Governor Richard Mermejo

Pueblo of Picuris Governor George Rivera

Pueblo of Pojoaque Governor Walter Dasheno

Pueblo of Santa Clara Governor Leon Roybal

Pueblo of San Ildefonso Governor Ruben Romero

Pueblo of Taos Governor Mark Mitchell

Pueblo of Tesuque Governor Ernest Mirabal

Pueblo of Nambe President Joe Garcia

National Congress of American Indians

Chairman, All Indian Pueblo Council Vice Chairman Gregory Ortiz

All Indian Pueblo Council President Joe Shirley

Navajo Nation

Chairman Ernest L. Stevens Jr.

National Indian Gaming Association

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Chairwoman Karen R. Diver

Fond Du Lac Band of Chippewa

Chairman Samuel N. Penney

Nez Perce Tribe

Chairman Robert Salgado Sr.

Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians

President Robin Danner

Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement

President Julie Kitka

Alaska Federation of Natives

Chairman John Berrey

Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma

Chairman Bruce Two Dogs Boszum

Mohegan Tribe

Chairman Mel Sheldon

Tulalip Tribes

Chairman Richard Milanovich

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

Principal Chief James R. Gray

Osage Nation

Chairman Greg Abrahamson

Spokane Tribe

Chairman Rick Hill

Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin

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Chairwoman Delores Pigsley

Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians

Chairman Chief Allan

Coeur D’ Alene Tribe

Chairman Alonzo Coby

Shoshone-Bannock Tribe

Chairman Mark Macarro

Pechanga Band of Luisieno Indians

Chairman Floyd “Buck” Jourdain Jr.

RedLake Band of Chippewa Indians

Chairman Don Arnold

ScottsValley Band of Pomo

President Andy Ebona

Rural
Alaska Community Action Program

President Brian Patterson