Indian tribes get another wooing from Obama and his team

Posted by Rob Hotakainen on November 13, 2013 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, shown here in February, opened the White House Tribal Nations Conference on Wednesday, pledging that the Obama administration would do more to aid the nation's 566 federally recognized Indian tribes.


President says he will visit Indian Country in 2014

While President Barack Obama's popularity has slipped in public opinion polls, he found plenty of support Wednesday among one key constituency: the 566 leaders of federally-recognized Indian tribes.

"I'd rank him as high as I can go --- a 10 really, to be honest with you," said Leo Lolnitz, first chief of the Koyukuk Native Village in Alaska.

And Brian Cladoosby, chairman of Washington state's Swinomish Indian Tribal Community for the last 17 years, said Obama is "second to none" when compared to other U.S. presidents and their work with tribes.

Tribal leaders consider the occupant of the White House one of their own: Barack Black Eagle Obama, who got the name in 2008 when he was formally adopted by a couple on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. And on Wednesday, they got a chance to meet with him yet again, as Obama kept a campaign promise by hosting his fifth White House Tribal Nations Conference.

The annual gathering at the Interior Department gives tribal leaders a chance to make pitches on what they want from Washington in the coming year. In 2014, tribal leaders want an end to the budget cuts known as sequestration and more authority to manage their own affairs, among other things.

A dozen Cabinet officials met with tribal leaders, promising more help for such things as fighting crime, fixing schools and getting better health care.

But some said the president and his team have too quick to promise and slow to deliver.

"He's reaching out to us --- we really appreciate that, but there's not a whole lot of things that have happened," said Bryan Brewer, chairman of South Dakota's Oglala Sioux Tribe. "I feel there's been a lot of promises to us, but we're still struggling."

For example, he said, the president should have done more to protect tribes from the cuts caused by sequestration: "We should have been exempted from a lot of those things, but we haven't."

Obama and his team outlined a list of accomplishments that they said have aided tribes since 2009, including: renewing the Violence Against Women Act, which makes it easier for tribes to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence; getting an additional 230,000 acres of land placed into trust on behalf of the tribes; spending more on law enforcement, schools and emergency relief; the launching of a nearly $2 billion buyback program later this year to return thousands of property parcels to tribes; and an executive order this summer that created the first-ever White House Council on Native American Affairs.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and kicked off the conference, said that Indian Country got hit hard by both sequestration and last month's government shutdown. But she told the tribal leaders that the Obama administration is determined to help "make your world a better place" despite the tough fiscal climate.

"I know from growing up in this country that the federal government does not have a proud legacy with tribes, and justice can't be reversed overnight," Jewell said." But I'm proud of this president for stepping up and recognizing that it exists."

Obama was expected to address the gathering later this afternoon.

UPDATE: Obama gave a 14-minute speech at 4 p.m., telling tribal leaders he would make his first visit to Indian Country as president sometime in 2014. But he didn't say where he will go.

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