WASHINGTON — As a freshman senator campaigning for president in May of 2008, Barack Obama made a stop on the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana, where he became part of a new family.
Hartford and Mary Black Eagle formally adopted Obama as their son during a private traditional Native American ceremony, giving him a new name – Barack Black Eagle – and making him an honorary member of the tribe.
On Monday night, the president lost his adopted father, who was also a spiritual leader for the tribe. After battling emphysema and pneumonia, Hartford “Sonny” Black Eagle, 78, died in his sleep at home at Lodge Grass, Mont., according to his son, Cedric, the chairman of the Crow Tribe.
He said his father was proud to count the president among his sons, though he never made a big deal about it.
“He didn’t really brag about it,” Cedric Black Eagle said.
On Wednesday, Obama called Mary Black Eagle to express his condolences, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said.
It marked the second death in the Black Eagle family this month. On Nov. 16, Marilyn Black Eagle, Obama’s 55-year-old adopted sister, died in a two-car traffic accident. An obituary published in The Billings Gazette listed the president and first lady Michelle Obama among the survivors.
Obama visited the reservation shortly before Montana’s 2008 presidential primary, as he wrestled then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was the first presidential candidate ever to visit the reservation.
According to published reports at the time, Hartford Black Eagle christened Obama with his new name and waved smoke from burning cedar needles over him with a fan of bald eagle feathers. The future president told a cheering crowd that he liked his new name and called the Black Eagles “the nicest parents you could ever want to know.”
W. Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe in Sequim, Wash., said Native Americans benefited from Obama’s desire to reach out to minorities that he thought were underrepresented in U.S. politics.
“Early on, his campaign realized that the Indian communities were among those,” Allen said. He described the Crow Tribe as very traditional and said tribal leaders wanted to respond to Obama’s pledge to help them: “They believed his commitment and their response to his conviction was that they wanted to adopt him. Not all tribes do that.”
As a result of the adoption, Obama is an honorary member of the tribe but can’t vote in tribal elections, said Allen, who’s also the treasurer of the National Congress of American Indians, an advocacy group.
After he was elected, Obama invited his adoptive parents to attend his inauguration in January 2009.
The couple, who were married for 60 years, became regulars at the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, where the president meets with tribal leaders from across the country. They even had a chance to meet the president’s two daughters.
“My dad was a great traditional Crow healer, and I think he represented Indian country well as being the adopted father of President Barack Obama,” Cedric Black Eagle said.
As the White House prepares for its next Tribal Nations Conference, which is next Wednesday, Cedric Black Eagle recalled how the president had summoned him to the Oval Office early in 2009, after hearing that his adopted brother was visiting Washington. He said the president wanted to discuss his plans for his first conference, an event at which he envisioned meeting with leaders from federally recognized tribes – more than 500 of them – across the country.
Allen said he expected Black Eagle’s death to be a topic of discussion at next week’s conference, the fourth annual under Obama. The first came in 1994, when Bill Clinton was president.
“No other president has met with tribal leaders four years in a row,” Allen said. “He’s taken it to another level.”
Cedric Black Eagle said he wouldn’t attend this year’s conference, and neither would his mother. After losing his re-election bid earlier this month, his term as chairman expires Friday, a day after the family plans to bury his father.