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Pursuing the ‘American Indian dream’

President Barack Obama met with tribal leaders in Washington Nov. 5. The president upheld a campaign promise to meet with Indian leaders annually, and he made good for the first year.

Obama promised more meetings, and encouraged tribal leaders to meet and talk with cabinet secretaries from Health, Interior, Energy, Agriculture, and other agencies. President Obama promised to honor treaties, act justly and fairly toward American Indians, not forget about tribal peoples, and uphold the nation-to-nation relations with tribal communities. He also compelled action on a long-standing executive order from the last days of the Clinton administration mobilizing federal agencies to develop plans within 90 days that would accommodate and facilitate cooperation and Indian access to federal agencies.

As promised in his campaign, the president provided access to the White House for tribal leaders, access to federal agencies, new plans for working cooperatively with federal agencies, more funding for health, economic development, education, and green energy development. Tribal leaders were encouraged by the expression of support by the president.

Nevertheless, even with all the administration’s good intentions, some of the comments and forms of support for Indian country did not appear clear, or enduring, and the presentation lacked a clear goal for strengthening tribal governments and communities to meet the economic, cultural and political challenges of the 21st century.

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The economic development plans focused on tax reductions for workers, but with many tribal members unemployed, few would significantly benefit from tax reductions. Most tribal members prefer to remain in their communities and work, but broad plans for creating employment opportunities for tribal members will draw them away from reservation communities and into urban markets. If tribal community members were primarily interested in greater economic opportunities and obtaining the economic well being of the American Dream, then the plans and vision suggested by the Obama administration would be helpful and welcomed by tribal members.

The goals of many tribal members are to strengthen tribal communities, and make them more economically viable, and at the same time maintain tribal identity and community. American Indians want to obtain the “American Indian dream” in the sense of building strong and sustained tribal communities. More funds to support small businesses might help some Indian businesses but tribal communities need more funds and technical support for creating tribal enterprises and tribal corporations.

Tribal corporations and enterprises enable tribal members to work for and within their communities, and yet earn an economic livelihood based on the market economy. Tribal reservation employees work for the tribal community, and tribal corporations share economic wealth within the community. Collective control of tribal enterprises, economic redistribution, collective ownership of land and tribal business profits are hallmarks of contemporary tribal market enterprises. Tribal communities want to approach the market in ways that preserve, enhance, and secure the continuity of culture, political sovereignty, and sustained economic enterprise.

The Obama administration’s focus on socio-economic mobility and the American Dream are misplaced for many tribal communities. The American Indian Dream entails greater economic opportunities, but for the purposes of building stronger, sustainable, healthier communities that are economically and politically empowered to make culturally informed choices about their futures.

The current policies of the administration do not provide consistent leadership, or help shape the conditions for American Indian communities to advance their own visions of the future. The administration needs to understand more clearly the goals and values of tribal communities, the American Indian Dream, and focus policy plans and resources to building sustainable and healthy tribal communities.