White House opens doors to tribal leaders

WASHINGTON – When several tribal leaders trekked to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House grounds Aug. 31, it represented one of the rare times in American history when a cross-section of tribes were invited by a sitting president’s staff to conduct official business.

Administration officials, eager to highlight the nation-to-nation philosophy that President Barack Obama has espoused regarding tribes and the federal government, said the meeting was a first step in enhancing relations with tribes.

Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House, would not say precisely how many tribal leaders were invited. He described the meeting as a couple of “informal discussions.”

“I can say that President Obama is committed to improving communication between Indian nations and his administration and believes that regular dialogue will foster a respectful partnership and assist in identifying and addressing the needs of Indian country,” Inouye said, adding that the intent of the gathering was to focus on “important issues that impact Native American communities.”

While administration officials would not describe specific details of the meeting, Inouye did say the gathering was aimed at informing the administration’s agenda of what he called a “tribal nations conference” to be held at the White House in the future.

A gathering of tribal nations, which was promised by Obama during his campaign for president to be a yearly occurrence, is expected to take place sometime this fall, but the exact date has not yet been decided, Inouye said.

Details of what is to be achieved at the larger conference have not been released.

Attendees seemed generally satisfied with the proceedings. Some said it left them feeling inspired.

Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter attended the meeting and said tribal leaders spoke about sovereignty, taxation, land claims and other issues.

“We were pleased to have been asked to provide our input, and we were assured that the White House will engage in ongoing consultation.”

Still, some from Indian country said the event could have been better organized. For instance, it was closed to tribes that could not afford to attend, as well as to ones that were not invited – problems that need addressing, tribal leaders said.

The White House would not say how it went about inviting tribes, nor if every tribe in the nation was invited to participate. There are 564 federally recognized tribes, according to the BIA. There are also several state-recognized tribes.

An invitation letter sent from Kim Teehee, the top Native American affairs advisor to Obama, was released by some tribal leaders. It indicated that each tribe would be allowed two participants. The letter did not say how many tribes were invited.

The White House Domestic Policy Council, which is aimed at providing policy advice to the president, and the Office of Public Engagement, which serves as an outreach vehicle for the White House, co-hosted the event, according to the letter.

Little snafus were apparent on the day of the event. For instance, one of the few known pictures of the rare tribal leaders’ meeting was taken via a cell phone camera belonging to one of the chairmen in attendance.

Tribal leaders who attended said it looked like dozens of attendees were present.

While few details were offered by way of public explanation from the White House, several tribal leaders publicly expressed their thoughts after the meeting.

Derek Bailey, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, feels it’s important for the White House to communicate with tribal leaders who could not attend the gathering.

Bailey sent several Twitter messages during the meeting. He hopes the messages helped fill in some blanks, serving as a source of information for his own tribal members and others throughout the nation who were not invited, or could not be there.

He believes the administration should work to better communicate with tribes nationwide, through routes like providing video links to future meetings, and conducting increased outreach to the press on Native issues.

Of his own online messages, Bailey said he tried to be respectful of the administration’s process and not to insult the White House facilitators.

“I hope that I didn’t offend people by putting a tweet out. To me, it was just so important to share. … I wanted to share the exuberance I felt.

“For the effective change, tribal leaders need to have equal understanding – when you communicate, the message is shared and everyone feels included.”

While Bailey wishes more tribal leaders could have been involved, he was “very impressed” with the Native American folks and others in the White House who helped carry out the event.

“Never was there a question about whether they were engaged or not,” Bailey said of the facilitators. “This was an initial discussion – more will come from it, and I welcome it.”

Bailey noted that Teehee, a member of the Cherokee Nation, and other Native administration officials were present, including the Office of Public Engagement’s Jodi Gillette, a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; IHS director Yvette Roubideaux, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe; and the BIA’s Del Laverdure, a citizen of the Crow Tribe.

St. Regis Mohawk Chief James Ransom, who attended the meeting with the tribe’s Chief Mark Garrow, also shared a post-event message regarding White House communications.

“Our understanding is that the federal government is looking to improve communications with tribes, so this, the first ‘listening session,’ will be followed up by other meetings between White House and tribal officials.”

Ransom presented information during one of two meetings, which highlighted ways his tribe tries to communicate.

One of his descriptions detailed the history of the Mohawk and Haudenosaunee people in building relationships with others. He specifically mentioned the Two Row Wampum Treaty Belt as a positive example of the types of relationships the tribe and its people strive for.

Meanwhile, J.C. Seneca, a council member for the Seneca Nation of New York, took the opportunity to deliver a briefing paper that urged the Obama administration to live up to Obama’s campaign promise to engage in nation-to-nation consultation.

The paper called on the U.S. government to allow tribes to reject particular regulations and to require government officials who make decisions to be present at consultation sessions. It said, too, that the Seneca Nation would not comply with or implement regulations that were not created without proper notice and adequate consultation.

Editor’s note: Indian Country Today is a division of Four Directions Media, which is owned by Oneida Nation Enterprises, LLC.