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Obama, Indian Country's Problem Solver—But Where's the Boldness?

At the third White House Tribal Nations Conference held by President Barack Obama, many Native American tribal leaders see Obama as a problem solver in Indian country but wonder if he has done enough.

WASHINGTON – After a morning no-show at the White House Tribal Nations Conference he was supposed to be hosting, President Barack Obama made a grand entrance to the afternoon portion of the event held December 2 at the U.S. Department of the Interior headquarters.

Like Santa Claus, the president came bearing good tidings, a jolly laugh, and even a gift: He told the hundreds of assembled tribal leaders that he had earlier in the day signed an executive order meant to bolster Native education and tribal colleges and universities.

When Obama was present, the energy in the room came alive. Tribal leaders clapped and whooped loudly during his speech, in which he reminded them that he was adopted into the Crow Nation during his 2008 campaign for president by Sonny and Mary Black Eagle. He referred to the elder couple as “Mom and Dad” during his talk, which he gave with a smile. Later, the beaming parents gave a prayer, letting the audience know how proud they are of their adopted son.

“I bet they’re grateful that I never went through the ‘terrible twos’ – or “terrible teens,” Obama said early on. “They got me after I was a little more polished.”

The tribal leaders ate it up, laughing and engaging with the president. Several went on record throughout the day’s meetings to let the administration and the world know how grateful they have been to the president for supporting many Indian initiatives during his three years in office.

As Obama ticked through his laundry list of accomplishments for Indian country – among them Native staff hires, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization, and the Tribal Law and Order Act passage, it was clear that the president truly believes that he has done what he promised for Indians.

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And they tend to agree. A common refrain from the gathered Indian leaders was that this administration has done more for Indians since the Nixon administration—a noble reality, but one that needs clarification: Very little good has been done for Indians in the last 30 years by the federal government, so much of what Obama and his team has accomplished should have been sorted out decades ago. Because so much of the Obama focus on Indian issues has been on fixing the problems of the past, like the Cobell settlement, there has been very little opportunity to look forward to the future, to create stronger relationships with tribes as true sovereign nations.

Obama said during his speech that he knows there are lots more problems to be fixed, which is true—but the real desire from many in Indian country is for him to advance creative new steps on Indian economic development and sovereign growth. The president hinted that that’s where he wants to go – at least economically – saying that he hopes that this turning point in history will be the moment when “a strong middle class in Indian country” began to take root. But, as some tribal leaders have indicated many times over, it remains to be seen if Obama and his staff truly understand how to take new and bold steps on behalf of Indians. For instance, some tribal leaders have pressed for a permanent Cabinet-level Indian desk at the White House, with no sign of action thus far. Others have asked for a firm commitment to the ideals of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but all they have gotten is a signal of support thus far. Others want real revolution, for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move to the State Department—which no one in the administration is seriously discussing.

Obama concluded with popular words: “You have an administration that understands the challenges that you face and, most importantly, you’ve got a president who’s got your back.” Words do matter, as the president himself has said in the past. Actions matter, too—actions that aren’t simply ones that tidy up the dirty problems of America’s history are the ones craved for most in Indian country. Whether Obama can deliver here remains to be seen.

In all, the afternoon session – even before the president’s entrance – had a much more engaging feel to it than the more staid morning session. At one point, a tribal leader shouted out to Hilary Tompkins, the Navajo solicitor general of the Interior Department, “You go girl,” as she delivered a speech highlighting points made in an earlier breakout session. Such moments and pictures are ones that will no doubt make for good material in the upcoming presidential campaign.

By this time next year, the Obama administration will have to decide if it will hold its fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference. Also by this time next year, there will have been an intense battle for the presidency of the United States. The Obama we see at the next conference, if there is one, will either have just made history by becoming the first African American elected to two terms of the presidency, or he will be a lame duck, soon to be replaced by his yet unknown Republican challenger.

No matter the outcome of the election next year, the current time is tense for the Obama administration and its staffers. This apprehension carries over to Indian country as tribal leaders await word on how Indian affairs will be funded in the upcoming federal budget. Most realize that the president’s and Congress’ attention will be largely focused on campaigning in the coming year, so few expect much by way of real progress for Indians this coming year.

One of the greatest fears expressed by tribal leaders exiting this year’s White House meeting was that the best there is for Indian country under Obama’s first term might have already been accomplished. And for many, it has simply not been enough.