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'Obamamania' hits the Crow Nation

Sen. Barack Obama makes first visit to Indian country

CROW AGENCY, Mont. - ''I like my new name: Barack Black Eagle. That is a good name,'' Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama told the crowd of some 4,000 people gathered at Crow Agency May 19. He referenced having been adopted into the tribe moments earlier by his new ''parents,'' Hartford and Mary Black Eagle.

Obama's official new American Indian name, given to him by the Crow Nation, was translated as ''One who helps people throughout the land.''

''It is not just done for show,'' Robert Old Horn explained after he announced the tribe's newest honorary member. ''But it is done with sincereness - adopting one into a family, with brothers and sisters.''

Crow Tribal Chairman Carl Venne introduced Obama, thanking the Illinois senator for co-sponsoring the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and presenting Obama with gifts to share with his family.

''We ask that you, senator, commit to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People,'' Venne said. The U.S. is one of four countries that voted against that declaration.

In turn, Obama thanked and listed every tribe in Montana, and thanked the rest of Indian country for its support. He also praised the work of his director of Native American Outreach in Montana, Samuel Kohn, Crow.

Having the senator come to the reservation was the manifestation of a lot of hard work on behalf of Kohn and other tribal Obama supporters.

''We've been doing all kinds of things: community organizing, meeting up with each of the tribal leaders, traveled all over the state,'' Kohn said. ''We've really ran the gauntlet.''

Kohn said that because Obama makes every person feel involved, it has made his work more rewarding with a tremendous increase of voters on reservations.

He was touched when his work to get people to vote was heeded by one elderly man on the northern Montana Rocky Boy's Reservation.

''And at a meeting, a man 74 years old came up,'' Kohn said. ''He said nobody cared enough to ask him to vote, or cared enough to even show him what he should do to register to vote. But when he said he was going to vote for the first time in his life, he said, 'I'm going to vote for Barack Obama.'

''For the first time, I feel that a candidate really cares about improving the life of American Indians. There's no other candidate that has sat down face-to-face with American Indians and genuinely cared about them.''

One Northern Cheyenne voter present at the Obama rally, Donna Gonzalez, said she was disillusioned with the current administration and was impressed that Obama would put Indians in his cabinet. ''I'm a Republican, but I'm voting for a Democrat this year,'' she said.

Obama's words at the rally were a strong indication that Kohn was right in his feelings about the candidate and his commitment to American Indians.

''Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as the Native Americans, the first Americans,'' Obama said. ''Too often Washington has paid lip service to working with tribes, while taking a 'one size fits all' approach with tribal communities across the nation. That will change when I'm president of the United States.''

Obama said that he'd work with tribes to settle mismanagement of Indian trusts, and would even host an annual summit at the White House with tribal leaders to come up with an agenda for tribal communities while making sure treaty obligations are met while honoring the tribal and federal government relationship.

''Because that's how we'll make sure that you have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about your lives, about your nations, about your people,'' he said about the proposed annual tribal White House summit.

Obama acknowledged that the U.S. government has had a tragic history with tribal nations, and that it hasn't always been honest with them.

''And that's history we have to acknowledge if we are going to move forward in a fair and honest way. Indian nations have never asked much of the United States, only for what was promised by the treaty obligations made by their forebears.

''So let me be clear: I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law, I'll fulfill those commitments as president of the United States.''

He said in addition to co-sponsoring the IHCIA, he's fighting to ensure full funding of IHS, as well as increase tribal college and education funding for all American Indian children.

Obama told of how when he grew up in Hawaii and because he was black, he felt he was often deemed an ''outsider,'' the same as many American Indians perhaps have felt in their own country.

''And because I have that experience, I want you to know that you will never be forgotten. You will be on my mind every day that I'm in the White House.

''We will never be able to undo the wrongs that were committed against Native Americans. But what we can do is make sure that we have a president who's committed to doing what's right with Native Americans - being a full partner.

''Respecting you, honoring you, working with you. That's the commitment I'm making to you; and since now I'm a member of the [Crow and American Indian] family, you know that I won't break my commitment to my own brothers, and my own sisters.''