Looking to end decades of government negligence of Native people, President Barack Obama spoke Nov. 5 to tribal leaders gathered from across the nation for the White House Tribal Nations Conference.
The conference, which was held in Washington, D.C., at the Department of the Interior, gave tribal leaders a chance to interact with Obama and his administration and gave the president a chance to present his agenda as it relates to Native people.
The event also gave the president a chance to tout his achievements so far in fulfilling campaign promises he made to tribes across the country.
The list of achievements Obama recited – accomplishments Native people have, thus far, only witnessed in bits and pieces – was impressive. The appointment of Native leaders like Larry EchoHawk and Kimberly Teehee to prominent and influential positions within the Obama administration. Efforts to take policymakers to tribal communities to listen to tribes’ concerns. And, of course, hosting the Tribal Nations Conference, an event Obama promised while on the campaign trail.
The president’s declared and demonstrated commitment to consult directly with tribes and require his own administration to do the same holds great promise in improving the lives of tribal people across the country.
Tribes, by and large, expressed their support for Obama early in his presidential campaign. The Black Eagle family of the Crow Tribe of Montana even adopted candidate Obama into their family, a fact the president acknowledged with his signature eloquence.
“Only in America could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States,” he said.
But tribes have watched with skepticism as Obama took office amid a recession, waiting for him to fulfill his promises to them. Promises are easy and cost little to nothing to the politician, though they can reap huge returns for those politicians in terms of Native political support.
And too often Native people have given their political support too easily to politicians who speak with forked tongue.
However, that is changing as Native people become more astute at identifying candidates and leaders who have proven themselves as tribal allies. And by fulfilling so many of his campaign promises to Native people, Obama certainly has given Native people reason to believe he is, indeed, our friend.
The president’s declared and demonstrated commitment to consult directly with tribes and require his own administration to do the same holds great promise in improving the lives of tribal people across the country. That commitment is a seismic shift in government and tribal relations, as is Obama’s willingness to speak about issues previous administrations seemed all too willing to sweep under the rug.
Surely, Obama’s openness to Native concerns is a credit to the Native people in his administration, as well as a credit to Native peoples’ efforts to hold him and his administration accountable.
But does that mean we should give our adopted son and brother a free pass? Of course not. In fact, a number of tribal leaders who asked Obama questions after his speech expressed skepticism at the possibility of real change on the part of national leaders.
Still, Obama’s young presidency has created plenty of positive change for Indian people already. And by continuing to reach out to tribes and by continuing to listen to the pleas of his adopted brothers and sisters, Obama will hopefully continue down this path of reconciliation that he so deftly paved during his campaign.