WASHINGTON – In the waning minutes of the day-long White House Tribal Nations Conference, held Nov. 5, President Barack Obama performed two duties: He said goodbye to the hundreds of leaders of sovereign Indian nations whom he invited to Washington, and addressed the horrific shootings at Fort Hood. In doing so, he created a controversy that has perplexed some in Indian country.
Some observers who tuned in to see the president’s remarks late in the afternoon expected him to talk only about the tragedy.
Thus, many mainstream viewers saw Obama addressing tribal leaders like Joe Medicine Crow, a citizen of the Crow Nation, whom he had awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom earlier this year, and then making strong remarks and condolences regarding the Fort Hood situation.
At the tribal nation event, a somber mood overtook many of the conference attendees after Obama’s remarks, with many expressing sadness about the devastating shootings at Fort Hood. Some said the president did a good job at balancing both his obligation to sovereign tribal leaders, as well as addressing a national tragedy.
But opinions outside the walls of the conference were not so clear cut.
Almost immediately after the president’s close, some cable commentators questioned his “commander-in-chief” status. They said they thought it was strange to see him address tribes when a more important event – in their minds – should have been capturing his attention.
Soon, negative articles were written about the president’s speech, and some said he should have canceled the tribal nations’ summit altogether after the Fort Hood tragedy took place.
The Drudge Report, a popular conservative-leaning news aggregator, eventually linked to the articles, and the topic soon gained more steam.
The day after the conference, NPR interviewed one of Obama’s top campaign advisers, David Plouffe, about a new book he had written. The president’s balancing of the tribal conference with the shooting eventually became a topic of discussion.
Said NPR host Michel Martin: “[T]here [was] some talk about that because the cable networks went to his comments immediately, and wondered, and it was a little bit awkward. And it kind of made some people wonder whether he’s really moved into the presidential space, whether he’s really taken on the role of the President of the United States, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the leader of the free world. What do
Plouffe was not moved.
“I don’t have a lot of tolerance for even this discussion,” he responded.
“I think it’s a – I think in every meaningful way, he’s leading us in profound ways internationally, and here domestically. And I think I couldn’t be prouder of the job he’s doing.”
Many in Indian country also did not have tolerance for the questioning of Obama’s handling of the situation, but not for the exact same reasons Plouffe mentioned.
Some said the commentators who questioned Obama were discounting that he was acting as a strong commander-in-chief by respecting and fulfilling his promise to hundreds of tribal sovereign nations – a role so many presidents before him have ignored.
“The reaction of those commentators tells me that they just don’t get it,” said Chris Stearns, a former senior official in the Clinton administration and current Seattle Human Rights commissioner.
“The idea that the president should just drop American Indians from his agenda and close the door on us is the exact opposite of where he is coming from,” added the Navajo Nation citizen.
“I think the president did a fantastic job of balancing his duties as the rightful lead in government-to-government discussions with his duties as commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.”
Even some conservative American Indians seemed taken aback by the criticism.
Former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said the president did what any good leader would have done – wrapped up quickly and quietly on national TV and then moved on respectfully to the Fort Hood tragedy.
“As a national politician, no matter what you prioritize, someone else thinks you should have focused on their issue first,” the former senator said.
“He was addressing sovereign leaders. There is no way that he should have canceled the event.”
Nighthorse Campbell noted, too, that just a few days after the Fort Hood shooting, Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House over Middle
“No one would say he should have canceled that talk with a sovereign leader.”
After the controversy, Robert Williams, a law professor with the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law, noted that scholar Vine Deloria Jr. in the 1960s said there were a number of non-Indians who saw Indians as just another minority group playing the race card for attention, preferential treatment and reparations.
“Four decades later, there are apparently still some non-Indians who see it that way,” said the citizen of the Lumbee Indian Tribe of North Carolina.
“Tribal leaders, however, have always seen their relationship to the United States in political, not racial terms. They represent sovereign tribal nations, and so for them, they relate to the U.S. on a nation-to-nation basis and so, from that perspective, the president of the United States is acting in his commander-in-chief role when he addresses and meets with them.”
Williams also noted that there were likely a large number of Native veterans in the room with the president at the conference, given the correlation he’s seen between U.S. military service and tribal leadership positions in contemporary Indian country.
Robert Miller, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, said that to him, the situation easily boiled down to one of political posturing by the president’s critics.
“We shouldn’t make too much of it, but if it does show some denigration to tribal nations, it’s pretty hard not to,” said the citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
The White House declined to comment on the situation.