WASHINGTON – Fulfilling a pledge to forge a strong and lasting partnership with tribal nations, the leader of the free world took some time out of his schedule to address a plethora of concerns affecting Native American people and their communities.
“I’m absolutely committed to moving forward with you and forging a new and better future together,” President Barack Obama said during a Nov. 5 speech to hundreds of tribal leaders gathered in Washington from sovereign nations across the country.
“It’s a commitment that’s deeper than our unique nation-to-nation relationship. It’s a commitment to getting this relationship right, so that you can be full partners in the American economy, and so your children and your grandchildren can have an equal shot at pursuing the American dream.”
The setting for the event, called the White House Tribal Nations Conference, was the Sydney R. Yates Auditorium of the Department of the Interior. Besides the president, several Cabinet heads were in attendance, interacting with tribal leaders via moderated question-and-answer sessions throughout the day.
Administration officials said tribal leaders from all 564 federally recognized tribes were invited, and more than 400 were believed to be at the event.
Obama seemed to understand his audience quite well, choosing to open up about his upbringing and explaining how his own past helps him connect with Native Americans today.
“I get it. I’m on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider,” he said.
“… I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle.”
Obama also mentioned being adopted by the Crow Tribe of Montana in May 2008 during his campaign for president, after which his fate seemed to be set in motion.
“Only in America could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States,” Obama joked.
But the president said he didn’t just want to pay “lip service” to tribal issues. He wanted to take action. Thus, he used the day to highlight his signature of a presidential memorandum establishing “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration” between tribal nations and the federal government.
Significantly, Obama imposed a time limit as part of the executive order, which he signed in front of the tribal attendees. The memorandum directs every Cabinet agency head to provide the president a detailed plan within 90 days of how they will implement and improve tribal consultation.
During a break after the signing, several tribal leaders heralded the move.
Derek Bailey, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said he was especially impressed that the president imposed a tight deadline for agencies to begin complying.
“Too many times these kinds of orders just sit there. This is a strong call for rather immediate action.”
The president noted, too, that he’s hired several Native Americans to fill key roles in his administration, while also dramatically increasing financial support to various tribal programs, including those of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service.
Myra Pearson, chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Tribe, said she had intrinsic feelings Obama would take those kinds of positive steps for Indian country if he was elected.
“He promised me he would make change, and I believed him. Today, he proved us both right. I think it will continue.”
The day was not meant for the president and his agency officials to simply tout their merits. Tribal leaders were also invited to interact with the administration, explaining their own concerns – not an easy task by any means, considering the unique and specific conditions facing each tribal nation.
Common desires did emerge, however. Generally, tribal leaders said they want the administration to respect tribal sovereignty, promote self-determination, conduct consultation and increase funding in health, education, law enforcement and other key areas.
Tribal leaders also appeared to grow sharper as the day wore on. After a morning session during which a few gushed that they wanted to shake the president’s hand, leaders in the afternoon sessions carried out a more coordinated plan, highlighting broad issues by region and topic area.
Some had been disappointed after early discussions that more topics weren’t getting across. Groups of leaders chatted during lunch to formulate an on-the-fly approach to make better use of the day based on regional issues.
“Laying our concerns out by region seemed to make sense and helped spell out areas that need meaningful action,” said James Ransom, chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council.
Ned Norris Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, expanded on the idea, saying he would like the administration to hold regional meetings with tribes in the future in order to better address tribal concerns.
The region-based tactic at the conference appeared successful, as tribal leaders ended up achieving new promises in several key areas from top administration officials.
On the issue of tribes and homeland security, which Ransom raised, Department of Homeland Security officials said they would consider provisions that would better address specific tribal situations. Along those lines, they said they are supportive of legislation that would provide financial support to tribes that produce identification cards.
Ransom also noted that there are only three countries that have not signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, including Canada, Australia and the United States.
While Obama himself did not promise to sign the document, which is aimed at ending human rights violations against the world’s indigenous people, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he is urging the president to do so.
Obama did make a pledge toward ending violence against Native Americans. In his opening remarks, he related the statistic that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. He said the grim figure represented “an assault on our national conscience that we can no longer ignore” – noted as a major acknowledgment by many tribal leaders.
Later, a new agency pledge occurred after tribal leaders discussed an ongoing lawsuit of tribal farmers suing the United States Department of Agriculture based on alleged discriminatory financial assistance practices.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told the leaders that he knew the litigation has been going on for a considerable period of time, and he added that he is committed to resolving it. To date, agency officials had not made that kind of promise.
Another area of responsiveness to tribal leaders’ concerns arose after Jonathan Windy Boy, a Chippewa Cree Tribal Council member and a Montana state representative, said the administration should support a permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, so Native Americans don’t have to beg to see their basic health care rights fulfilled every few years.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was amenable to the idea.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the only Native American serving in Congress, said he was impressed by the tribal leaders’ prowess.
“I think they’ve done a very good job,” the lawmaker assessed.
“The turnout, respect and desire to work together have been amazing. The ideas are just there.”
In terms of follow-up on promises made during the conference, Jodi Archambault Gillette, the Obama administration’s Standing Rock Sioux intergovernmental affairs adviser, said she and others would create a report focused on moving forward.
Several tribal leaders said they would press for quick release of the report.
The historic nature of the event was also celebrated by many attendees.
“We’re definitely living history,” said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. He noted that President Bill Clinton started many initiatives that tribal officials viewed as positive, and he said Obama is now expanding on them.
“He wants to be more engaged, have truly more dialogue,” the National Congress of American Indians board member said.
“That’s a different kind of relationship – a better one.”
Obama himself said the event was the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders in the nation’s history.
Chad Smith, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, took a slightly different view.
“You know, every day is a historic day in Indian country,” the tribal leader said.
“Some have been better than others. And this is one of the better ones.”
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Below are links to videos from the Tribal Nations Conference:
President Obama Opens Tribal Nations Conference (includes interactive discussion)