Witnessing history

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WASHINGTON – Thousands of American Indians descended on Capital City to witness the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

In his speech following the swearing-in, Obama mentioned the economic hardships facing Americans today, as well as the ongoing war in Iraq.

“The challenges we face are real, they are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily, or in a short span of time, but know this, America: they will be met.”

President Obama said the time has come to recognize that “all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

He later added: “…we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”

Upon winning the presidency in November, Obama mentioned American Indians in his acceptance speech, and he has said more than once that he believes there is a need to build a strong nation-to-nation relationship with tribes and Native people.

Obama took the oath of office on the same Bible used by President Abraham Lincoln during his inauguration in 1861. The ceremony was presided over by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Aretha Franklin sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” and a host of celebrities and top-ranking politicians, including all living former presidents and their wives, were in attendance.

The spectacle surrounding the event captured the hearts and minds of Native leaders and tribal members who traveled to Washington from all over North America. Several said they wouldn’t have missed viewing the inauguration of the first African American president in the nation’s history.

“It’s so exhilarating,” said LaDonna Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity. She said she had long been planning to attend the event, and noted she was one of Obama’s early Native supporters.

Harris, a former candidate for vice president under the Citizens Party banner in 1980 and the Comanche spouse of former Democratic Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, added: “We need change; the world is changing. … He’s a person of mixed heritage, and with his background, I really feel identification with him.”

Former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, also shared a positive assessment.

“It is an exciting time for the entire country and especially, I think, for Native Americans,” Nighthorse Campbell said at a pre-Inauguration Day pow wow organized by the American Indian Society of Washington, DC.

Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and longtime organizer of the Democratic Party’s Native American caucus, tried many times to call friends and family to share his enthusiasm, but it was tough going.

“When I finally got through, it was nice to be able to say this really happened,” said LaMere, a longtime Obama supporter. “We made it, and now we will see where this new era will take us.”

Despite the big crowds and cold temperatures, the event was one of overall high spirits. Many began gathering in the wee hours of the morning on Inauguration Day in hopes of getting a good view of the swearing-in ceremony, or via one of several Jumbotron screens brought in to project the ceremony.

Some viewed the festivities from the National Museum of the American Indian, which lies just a few hundred yards from the Capitol Building. The museum was a popular viewing site for some tens of thousands of people who flowed in throughout the day, hoping to secure a good spot for viewing the historic ceremony. People of all ages lined the museum’s curving staircase and halls, echoing excitement through the circular atrium.

Mary Three Irons, a member of the Crow Nation who traveled with several members of her tribe to the inauguration, said she was delighted to watch the festivities from the museum. Accompanied by her niece, Garlinda White Man and White Man’s 7-month-old baby, Three Irons is related to the Black Eagle family, which adopted Obama into the Crow Nation when he visited there in May. Three Irons’ husband and granddaughter were part of the Crow delegation that participated in the Inauguration parade.

A private gathering of Native leaders and their guests experienced an unobstructed view of the ceremony from the museum’s terrace, prompting many to note with pride and amusement that “the Indians had the best seats in the house.”

 “It’s an exciting time for all of the tribes in the country,” NCAI president Joe A. Garcia told Indian Country Today. Garcia, who is also chairman of the All Indian Pueblo Council in New Mexico, said there is already a sense of partnership with President Obama and his team.

“[Tribes] realized that if you can initiate the efforts, then there are always going to be others who can work with us and in this case, that very person is President Obama.”

Mark Van Norman, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and NIGA executive director, said Native America has been “looking for change for a long time.”

“We’re very hopeful that Barack Obama and the Obama administration is going to turn the page, reinvigorate government-to-government consultation, and provide essential funding that’s needed in Indian country to build infrastructure for healthy communities.”

Van Norman also praised NMAI director Kevin Gover for providing food and warmth to the public on the frigid January day. He said Gover showed “a level of hospitality that’s in keeping with the historic hospitality of Indian country.”

“I felt so fortunate to be working at the museum during this particular time and to be able to be in the position to offer tribal leaders and members the chance to watch this historic event in comfort and with dignity,” Gover, Pawnee/Comanche, reflected after the celebrations wound down.

“All too often in the context of the federal and tribal government-to-government relationship, tribal leaders are forgotten. ... I know so many of them that it felt like a bunch of old friends getting together to share this historic moment.”

Gover said his favorite part of the day was looking down at the museum’s Potomac Atrium and seeing it packed with Natives and non-Natives alike. He said the day ushered in the most visitors to the facility since it opened in 2004, and many have called to say they can’t wait to come back.

Looking out over the crowd awaiting Obama was Osage Principal Chief Jim Gray, who traveled from Oklahoma with a large delegation of nation representatives and tribal members.

“The sea of humanity out there on the mall that is just incredible,” he said. “There is a genuine sense of hopefulness about where this country is going with this leadership.”

In total, about two million revelers were estimated to be in attendance at the event. Overhead camera shots showed crowds overflowing the National Mall from the Lincoln Memorial to the steps of the Capitol Building.

After the swearing-in and Obama’s speech, Rev. Joseph Lowery gave the following benediction, which partially alluded to American Indians:

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around. ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy, say amen. Say amen.”

The words were especially pleasing to some Native ears.