It’s been days since I witnessed and soaked in the historic inauguration of our first black president, yet the amazing images I experienced with a mere 1.8 million people on Jan. 20 continue to run through my mind and are now embedded with my most significant of memories.
No doubt President Barack Obama is one of the best orators of our time and I felt privileged to have heard him give his inaugural address in person. As he spoke the words, “To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow,” I thought about my tribal community with its 70 percent unemployment rate. I know he was referring to the outside world, but he has promised to hire a senior cabinet level advisor on Indian policy to better build relationships with Indian tribes and he pledged to host an annual summit with tribal leaders to better address Native issues. It is a stark change from previous administrations and two of the reasons so many Native Americans voted for Obama.
While in Washington I was interviewed about Obama’s promises to Native people by a reporter who knew about my run for Congress. I said “people are anxious to see what happens.” Tribal leaders are ready to meet with the new president and they want direct access as expressed by Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, during the Tribal Leaders’ Strategy Session sponsored by NCAI and NIGA.
Triggering the most emotion during Obama’s inaugural address, for me, was when he spoke about Iraq, saying “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people.” I thought of my 18-year-old son, Micah Mosley, an Army Private 2nd Class stationed south of Baghdad and other young warriors now defending our freedoms, including the freedom to celebrate in record numbers the inauguration of the new president.
My mother remarked that she had not felt this way about another president since John F. Kennedy.
What I witnessed on Capitol Hill and at the National Mall that day was America once again embracing not only the message of change, but America embracing diversity. Worth noting: the feelings of pride and hope President Obama instills in young people, especially those of color.
The throng of people at the inauguration included a fair number of young Natives. Among them 25-year-old Carl Stevens and 17-year-old Lanea Burdette, 18-year-old Lena Moses, all San Carlos Apaches, and Malachai Martinez, a teenager, from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Like the masses, they recorded history on their digital cameras and camera phones.
I was with Stevens two days before the inauguration when he unexpectedly received tickets to the swearing-in ceremony at Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick’s office. Elated, he immediately sent a text to his friends to tell them the good news. Burdette and Moses, who are tribal queens, proudly wore traditional outfits as they watched from the fourth floor of the National Museum of the American Indian.
I wondered if the euphoria shared among these young Natives was in contrast to the feelings of the young Native cadets from Carlisle Indian School who marched in inaugural parades in the early 1900s. The most notable being the 1905 inaugural parade of President Theodore Roosevelt when a marching band and 350 cadets from Carlisle followed six famous Indian chiefs including Geronimo, Apache and Quanah Parker, Comanche. An exhibition commemorating their participation in the parade is on display at the NMAI. At that time, the chiefs were dealing with the destruction of their land base and full-blown acculturation. I can only imagine the emotions they must’ve felt riding in that parade.
Most of the young Natives attending this year’s inauguration gladly followed their chiefs to Washington. Hundreds of tribal leaders converged on Washington, D.C. to attend inauguration festivities, including Wendsler Nosie, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and Wallace Coffey, chairman of the Comanche Nation.
Many tribes gave significant contributions to Obama’s campaign; Renee Holt, Nez Perce/Navajo/Delaware, volunteered in Washington State to get him elected. “Seeing him on stage as he was being sworn in was a historical world event and it was certainly one of the most blissful feelings I have had in relation to a presidential campaign or inauguration. In all my years of voting, even during the Clinton campaign, I was not as excited or motivated to work tireless hours for a presidential candidate,” Holt said.
Carlyle Begay, Navajo, campaigned for Obama in Arizona. He too witnessed Obama take his oath. “Truly a historic moment for the country, especially for Native Americans as President Barack Obama and his administration represents the only true hope in achieving the kind of foundational transformation we so desperately need in policy and practices affecting native peoples across the country.”
While at the swearing-in ceremony I saw other Natives scurrying in the crowd, identified by their Pendleton coats or the Native designs on their clothing. I took a photo of a Native man wearing a Northwest coast design on his jacket sitting on top of a Port-o-John. I chose to wear an eagle feather plume in my hair. Our ancestors’ struggle for survival is the reason our people are here today, so it seemed fitting to wear an eagle plume for all Native people, past and present.
Just a week before the inauguration, I asked students at the San Carlos Jr. High School where I substitute teach to write an essay about themselves and their goals for the future.
“I want to be president,” wrote a seventh grader from the San Carlos Apache Reservation. I believe the student, like many others, has been inspired to dream big because of President Obama.
His inauguration was also meaningful for those who couldn’t be there in person. Like 40 million other viewers, my 67-year-old mother Charlotte watched the coverage on television. “Michelle (Obama) looks beautiful. She’s wearing yellow,” she said when I finally got through the jammed cell phone airwaves. As we talked I thought about election night, when I watched the results with my parents on the reservation. My mother remarked that she had not felt this way about another president since John F. Kennedy. Standing in front of the television, she clasped her hands and prayed, “Please Lord, don’t let anything happen to him.”
Our new commander-in-chief gives hope to the young and old. Inauguration Day 2009 is a day I’ll never forget.
Mary Kim Titla is a journalist living in Arizona. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.