President Barack Obama surprised an auditorium filled with tribal leaders, government department officials, reporters and Native youth on Thursday when arrived earlier than expected and walked on stage to join five native youth at the closing of the 7th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.
When the President got on stage, he didn’t immediately step up to the podium to deliver his remarks. Instead, sat down alongside the five youths. Obama then turned to basketball star Jude Schimmel and asked, "Am I supposed to make remarks first, or are you going to say something?"
Schimmel laughed and said, "I think we can do whatever you want."
The President also took part in a sit-down panel discussion with Native youth. The discussion was moderated by 21-year-old Schimmel, a former basketball player at the University of Louisville who won the NCAA Elite 89 award, for having the highest GPA of any player in the Final Four and is the author of the book Dreamcatcher.
The four other Native youth delegates were Tatiana Ticknor (Yup’ik/Tlingit/Dena’ina) 16, Brayden White (St. Regis Mohawk Tribe) 21, Blossom Johnson, (Navajo Nation) 23 and Philip Douglas, (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma) 15.
After prompting from Schimmel, the President, who said he sat down first amidst the youth because he felt so comfortable” in their company, delivered his opening remarks.
"When I ran for office, I pledged to build a true nation-to-nation relationship with all of you. Back then I was just a young adopted son of the Crow Nation, didn't have any grey hair. Now I am President Barack Black Eagle.”
"What started out as a campaign promise, has now become a tradition. Welcome to the 7th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference."
President Obama said he knew it was traditional for him to deliver a long speech, but instead he cut it short because he wanted to hear from the youth. "I get tired of hearing myself talk."
After touching on the topics of treaty obligations, sovereignty, strengthening relationships, harmful mascots, his travels and the daily struggles of native youth, the President sat down with the youth panel.
They asked President Obama questions on various concerns in Indian Country.
Ticknor asked about helping teachers better understand Native students and culture, and eliminating stereotypes, to which the president responded, “If a school is not respecting culture, it is failing.” He also lauded Adidas for working with schools to eliminate Native mascots that misappropriate culture and are harmful to the self-worth of Native youth.
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White asked how the Obama Administration could empower Native youth hoping to go to college. Obama responded in part, "We need to do a better job of telling you what is there." He spoke about the simplification of the Pell Grant process and the importance of holding onto your culture and becoming part of society's larger community through education.
Johnson, an Obama scholar at ASU, asked about poverty and mentioned how she did not have electricity and running water on her reservation home.
Obama said that for decades, the government agencies involved were underfunded and mismanaged. "Our first thing we needed to do was listen." He added that not having electricity and running water was unacceptable and that the government is focused on more funding. "Congress doesn't always cooperate with me."
Douglas asked if the President had ways to address childhood obesity and diabetes, to which Obama responded, "Absolutely, because I live with Michelle Obama!" He then talked about creating ways for access to healthier foods and the increasing success of programs such as 'Let's Move."
Obama added, "Let's ask the Division-1 athlete, Jude Schimmel."
"I agree it starts with the youth... living in a rural place is hard to find nutritious food," said Schimmel.
Obama also addressed how the creation of institutions would ensure the outreach to Indian Country after the end of his administration.
He also talked about increasing outreach in the VA for veterans and mental outreach to address native youth suicide. He then asked the youth panel their thoughts. The main point brought up by the panelists was that native communities needed to be more open about discussing the issues of suicide with young people.
In closing, President Obama asked Schimmel about his next steps. “Jude said I am supposed to make closing remarks.” Referring to the panel he said, “This is an example of the incredible talent and potential of our young people. We have a huge stake in our country in making sure that they get opportunity. That their voices are heard.”
Thursday’s conference saw the White House bringing together 566 federally recognized tribal leaders in Washington DC. The conference was created by the Obama Administration to allow tribal leaders the opportunity to meet with top government political and agency leaders to create ways to strengthen the government-to-government relationships with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives, especially Native youth.