What is Former President Obama’s Legacy Within Native Communities?
At this moment, former President Obama must look like he was a super hero for many communities in comparison to this clown who is in the White House right now. In his first week in office, Trump set Native people, women, Latina/o and Muslims back at least a few decades. Because of that, Obama might look like he was a veritable giant of justice—brown-skinned Superman in a suit! This said, what is former President Obama’s legacy within Native communities?
Obama wasn’t Superman for Native people. But neither was he Lex Luther. People who say that he was the same as all other presidents? Nah, not so much. They do not understand history. For a United States President, his understanding and respect for sovereignty was good. Better than all of the other Presidents, certainly. But comparing him to other Presidents is a tragically low bar. For Natives, he was more good than bad, sure, but there was also a lot of potential that was never realized.
It seems that it is hard for many Native individuals and also Native communities to be objective about President Obama. He was a first in many ways, and it’s painfully difficult to grade “firsts.” There is no standard for firsts. Obviously he was the first black president. But his first-ness goes deeper than that; he was also the first modern presidential candidate to pay so much attention to Native communities and to so explicitly make Natives an integral part of his campaign. Other modern presidents paid some level of attention to Native Nations—Richard Nixon and self-determination, Bill Clinton to a much smaller degree—but never before had a Presidential candidate actually made such an effort to win the Native Vote. He was the first to make a huge amount of promises to Native communities and amongst those was a promise to hold regular meetings with leaders of Native Nations.
Obama is also unquestionably a good human being. That goodness seems to cloud some criticisms. For example, the way he interacts with his brilliant wife or his daughters is amazing; he always seemed to be the adult in the room. He was constantly elegant and the voice of reason even when we disagreed with his substantive decisions. Pawnee attorney Lael Echo-Hawk talks about love for his human-ness, “Obama provided an alternative to the negative portrayal of black and brown men. He is a good man who loves his wife and daughters, not afraid to be “cool,” focused on his work and making the world a better place. Whether you agreed with his methods or deliverables, there is no denial that he was motivated by making a positive change in the lives of the American people…Obama was our regular black guy eating nachos, wearing mom jeans, fist-bumping and playing basketball, while doing the work, spending the time it takes to make thoughtful, reasoned decisions.”
Because of all of those firsts, there is a strong emotional attachment one way or another, “pro” Obama or against Obama. For some, the emotional connection is “He actually paid attention to us and performed on some of the promises he made” and therefore he is above reproach. And then there are those who only focus on Obama’s shortcomings and the promises that he made where he did not come through.
The truth is that Obama’s legacy falls someplace in the middle of these two extremes. It was complicated. He did some powerful things and tried to do some other powerful things, yet could not succeed because of strong opposition. For many, the end of his Presidency was disappointing, as he missed many, many opportunities to act with authority and conviction regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline (and fossil fuels generally). Many rightfully point toward the violence committed on Native people that could have been avoided had Obama had more principle and willingness to step in. Last Real Indians editor and Standing Rock Tribal Member Matt Remle points out, “Obama oversaw the greatest increase in oil production in US history thanks in part to the rise of fracking. He deported more people than any previous President, and he bypassed Congress to expand Presidential war power. Add this to DAPL…that said, the Tribal Nations conferences were good as was his rejection of Keystone XL pipeline and the settling of some tribal lawsuits. Better than Trump? Absolutely. Best we can get? Not at all.”
Turtle Mountain Chippewa attorney Rion Ramirez further complicates the narrative by suggesting that Obama’s intentions were always in the right place even when he could not perform as Natives hoped. “You can’t expect to agree with 100% of the decisions a leader makes. So for me it always boils down to trusting their intelligence and their heart. President Obama is always the smartest person in the room and his legacy is one of a deep love and commitment to Indian Country.” Winona LaDuke succinctly agrees, “For all the flaws of the American political system…I wish he wasn’t leaving.”
Here’s a few of the specific wins and losses in regards to Native nations (this article does not consider other campaign/unfulfilled promises like ending the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, shutting down Guantanamo, etc., almost 4,000 drone kills, and the effects of those things on national sovereignty).
- Tribal Nations Conference. The Tribal Nations was an undeniable success and something that should have been implemented literally centuries ago. But it was not, and yet Obama did. That is powerful.
- Consultation. Additionally, President Obama gave the consultation considerably more bit than it had under George W. Bush.
- Keystone XL Pipeline. There are many reasons why this pipeline was killed. Many attribute it to the development of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) thus the need for this tar sands oil became unnecessary. In either event, however, this was a pipeline that directly attacked Native water sources and so this was something that had to be in the “pro” category for President Obama.
- Health Care. Centuries ago, Native nations signed treaties with the federal government that promised healthcare in perpetuity and those promises were later legislated in a Act of Congress called The Indian Health Care Improvement Act (“IHCIA”). The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) bundled in the IHCIA and was the means to modernize those treaty obligations. Therefore, Obamacare undoubtedly helped Native people, filling the oftentimes-substantial gap between Indian Health Services (IHS) resources and actual needs. The IHS is chronically underfunded (fixed budget of $4.6 billion dollars) to provide service to millions of Native people—Obamacare service could step in if Natives signed up (94% of Native people have incomes that made them qualified). With the current clown as President and a imminent repeal of Obamacare, Native healthcare will almost sure suffer if there is no explicit separation of Obamacare from the IHCIA. As of yet, no one (including Mark Wayne Mullin and Tom Cole the two Native congress people) has proposed saving the IHCIA. So it’s not looking good but Obama had it right here.
- Violence Against Women Act. One of Obama’s campaign promises was to authorize “Native provisions” of the Violence Against Women Act. This was largely due to the disgustingly high percentage of violence against Native women and the refusal of US Attorneys to prosecute that violence. Obama pushed hard, against very strong opposition (including opposition from the current nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions) and eventually the legislation went through. In fairness, there are very real and reasonable critiques of this legislation that it is 1) assimilationist (tribal courts must mimic, 100%, due process requirements of federal court as if those are the “right” process requirements) 2) cost preclusive for many Native nations. It costs over a million dollars to even implement.
- Dakota Access Pipeline. One of the most evident was his complete and utter failure to take action on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Although any hypothetical action he took would likely have been short-lived, there are Native people who were physically harmed, received felonies and other criminal charges and racists who were emboldened by his lack of action.
- Sacred Sites. Initially President Obama spoke about settling the Black Hills land claim. That did not happen. Nor did protections for the Oak Flats. Largely, he did not do anything of substance with sacred sites but in the last year he did some stuff to salvage his legacy some. Specifically, Sally Jewell assisted the Amskapikuni Nation, led by Pikuni people on the ground fighting them, in cancelling the natural gas leases on sacred grounds. Moreover, Obama did, by Executive Order, put 1.65 million acres of Utah land and Nevada land into National Monuments. This particular “con” is not as strongly “con” as it was a year ago but unfortunately that was only one year of action out eight.
- Leonard Peltier. Like the Dakota Access Pipeline, it seems that many expected President Obama to take action on this particular tragedy in the final days of his Administration. When Obama commuted the sentence of Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, it seemed he might actually focus on political prisoners of color. However, as it became increasingly evident that Obama would remain weak on the Dakota Access Pipeline, hope waned that he would do the right thing toward the 73 year old Leonard Peltier and likely would not commute Peltier’s sentence after the 40 years he has already served in prison.
What will be the ultimate of President Obama’s legacy in regards to Native communities? Better than Trump? No question. Absolutely no freakin’ question. But that cannot be the standard. For that matter, he was almost certainly better than any other President in relationship to respecting sovereignty and recognizing Native nations’ seat at the table. But that is likewise a unfairly low standard and unfair to Native expectations. There is no question that he was genuinely fond of Native people and Native people were largely fond of him. And he was a good human being who wanted to help. Likewise, he certainly raised the profile of Native nations within the national discussion. There’s no question about that and that is a step in the right direction. Much of the progress was symbolic, but simply being invited to the table will likely have great value in the future and set a precedent of how Presidents are supposed to interface with the domestic, sovereign Nations.
Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Breakdances With Wolves Podcast, available on Soundcloud, iTunes