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Obama at Standing Rock: The Next Vital Steps

Almost three weeks ago, President Obama became the fourth sitting chief executive to set foot on Native American land when he visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota. During his speech, the president promised to continue his administration’s efforts to respect tribal sovereignty and help Native communities like Standing Rock find solutions to the structural problems that have gripped Indian country for so long. But if the past is any judge, the administration’s actions in coming months will reveal the depth of their commitment to helping Native communities.

Calvin Coolidge became the president in Indian Country when he visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1927. Three years earlier, he had signed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which unilaterally naturalized every Native American. His administration also commissioned a detailed study of the conditions on reservations nationwide. Known as the “Merriam Report,” this document illuminated policy failures and offered a roadmap future administrations would use to revamp Indian affairs. Yet Coolidge left a mixed legacy. While on Pine Ridge, Lakota leaders symbolically adopted him into the tribe and named him “Leading Eagle.” Coolidge responded with a speech addressing several problems plaguing Indian communities, gestured toward an interest in protecting tribal members from unscrupulous land and mineral speculators, and promoted education and economic development. Coolidge, however, did little to meet these promises for the remainder of his term, and in early 1928 vetoed two bills that would have allowed Native tribes to sue in the US Court of Claims. This decision especially stung the people of Pine Ridge, who had lobbied heavily for help returning the Black Hills, which the government usurped in the 1870s, to their people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a brief stop on Cherokee land in North Carolina in 1936. He met briefly with tribal leaders who bestowed upon him an honorary title: “Chief White Feather.” Although FDR made fewer promises in his discussion with Cherokee chiefs, his administration played an historic role in stemming the oppressive tide of Indian policy. Under Roosevelt, the Bureau of Indian Affairs pursued the “Indian New Deal,” a package of laws that redefined federal Indian policy and offered material relief to Native communities. He signed the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA), which stopped several devastating policies and removed bans on Native religion and encouraged tribes to restructure their governments around tribal constitutions. Although many Native communities rejected the IRA and sought to maintain their customary forms of governance, many others reorganized. Though not without its critics, the Indian New Deal was a watershed in the history of federal/tribal relations.

Six decades passed before the next presidential visit by Bill Clinton in 1999, who also ventured to Pine Ridge. Poverty, and the administration’s strategies for reducing it, proved the enduring theme of the journey. The national unemployment rate hovered just below 5 percent in the late 1990s, while it topped 75 percent on Pine Ridge. The president visited tribal members’ homes and observed poverty firsthand. At meetings with tribal leaders and in public speeches, Clinton touted his commitment to working with tribal leaders to improve housing, bolster economic development, respect tribal sovereignty, and ultimately, help curb the devastating conditions Native communities faced. It may still be too early to offer an historical assessment of his efforts. Key indicators of success, like the unemployment rate, however, have hardly budged, and according to some estimates, approached 90 percent in the fallout of the Great Recession.

The history of executive visits to Indian reservations suggests we should cast a wary eye on last week’s trip and what it means for the future of Indian affairs. On one hand, Obama seems more sincere in his commitment to Natives than most of his predecessors. His interest in Native issues reaches back to at least 2008, when he was ceremonially adopted by Montana’s Crow Nation and named “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land” during a campaign stop. He has followed through on the symbolism of that event in a number of ways. Obama hosts a White House Tribal Nations Conference every year, at which tribal leaders from across the country discuss employment, energy, health care, criminal jurisdiction, and other issues. Last year, Obama signed an executive order creating the White House Council on Native American Affairs, a group of policy advisers tasked with planning and executing policies along with tribal communities. Whether this council will have a healthy, meaningful relationship with tribes remains to be seen. But the administration has also taken important strides toward improving infrastructure and economic development in Indian country, supporting tribal businesses, courts, and healthcare centers in their struggles against poverty, crime, and disease.

On the other hand, it is disappointing that it took the president six years to visit Indian country, and the historic nature of the day will only carry the administration so far. When it comes to promises, Native communities have seen and heard it all before. Understanding and respecting tribal sovereignty is the core tenet of effective Indian policy, seconded by the federal government’s willingness to fulfill the trust responsibility that obligates it to providing the resources tribes need to overcome the challenges they face.

Obama used his time at Standing Rock to listen, learn, and inspire optimism and action. But he and his advisors must take seriously the priorities suggested by tribal leaders, then work with them to set reasonable, attainable short-term goals. Whether they decide to bolster employment or raise the high school graduation rate or to curb homelessness and substance abuse on Standing Rock, a commitment to meet benchmarks matters more than sweeping government promises to solve every problem for Indian country. If the administration fails to meet its commitments or acts without meaningful tribal input, this historic trip will go down as yet another in the canon of lost opportunities in federal/tribal relations.

In the short term, the president has succeeded in grabbing some national media attention for Standing Rock and making an historic visit to Indian country. It might be too soon to measure the veracity of his administration’s commitment to Indian affairs. But, as Obama said two weeks ago, he has tried to be “a president who honors” the “sacred trust” between tribes and the federal government, as well as one “who respects [tribal] sovereignty.” Hopefully, the next two years will show that the president stood up after Standing Rock and made those promises a reality.

Eric S. Zimmer is a doctoral candidate in American History at the University of Iowa. He was born and raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and his research focuses on Native American political and environmental history.