WASHINGTON — Speaking to 500 people representing 320 tribes, President Barack Obama pledged last month that he wouldn't forget his campaign trail promise to give native communities a greater voice in the White House.
"I said that so long as I held this office, never again would Native Americans be forgotten or ignored," he said. "And over the past two years, my administration, working hand in hand with many of you, has strived to keep that promise."
For the most part, tribal leaders say the president has been true to his word. And they've been watching, intent on holding accountable the president that many of them helped elect, said Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. They took careful notes during the president's first Tribal Nations conference in 2009; at Obama's second summit last month, they checked to see what goals had been met in the first year as well as what remains undone.
"There is this feeling that there is traction, that we're having a true dialogue," Johnson Pata said. "We're not saying, 'Check the box, you totally won.' We're saying we've got a great foundation, and now we've got to build upon that."
Some of the work has been symbolic — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar early in the administration restored the historic painting "Navajos Breaking Camp" in his office, after it had been mothballed during the Bush administration, for example.
But other accomplishments have had more tangible and far-reaching effects on thousands of people, including the settlement of the long-simmering Cobell lawsuit, which compensates thousands of Native Americans whose land was mismanaged while held in trust by the federal government.
There's the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act, which strengthens law enforcement in Indian Country. There's the inclusion of Indian Health Service in the landmark health care law, and the $3.2 billion in stimulus spending, which went to schools, roads on tribal lands and technology upgrades in some of the poorest and most remote corners of the nation.
Now though, everyone in Indian Country is watching to see what happens next, as some of the glow wears off the early victories and the Obama administration must now turn to the hard slog of getting things done.
Some in Indian Country are skeptical — they've seen too many promises made and broken before, said John Poupart, president of the American Indian Policy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Also, some of the work the administration touts, such as the Cobell settlement and the Tribal Law and Order, has been in progress for years, he said, calling it "maintenance work" that the Obama administration merely completed.
"It feels hopeful," Poupart said. "But a lot of these things are historic in nature, and it will take more than administrative measures to overcome them. We just want to see some productivity."
Others point to what they say is a shift in tone from previous administrations. It was a major victory for indigenous people worldwide when late in 2010 the administration decided to support a United Nations declaration defending the rights of indigenous peoples, said Julia Kitka of the Alaska Federation of Natives. The U.S. voted against the declaration when the U.N. General Assembly adopted it in 2007, arguing it was incompatible with existing laws.
"The reversal of that policy and the support behind that ... showcase the U.S. change in policy and what they're doing are historic," she said. "I would put that very much at the top of the list."
The administration drew praise in its early days for early and high-profile American Indian appointees: Kim Teehee, the White House senior policy adviser for native affairs; Jodi Gillette, the White House associate director of intergovernmental affairs; and Yvette Roubideaux, the Indian Health Services director. The White House also moved quickly to get in place at the Interior Department Larry Echo Hawk, who as assistant secretary for Indian affairs, filled a job overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs that had been largely vacant during the Bush administration. The Obama administration also made a top-ranking Justice Department official a liaison to tribal governments.
"Creating a position in the White House and designating someone of stature in the Justice Department was very, very important," said former Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota who was among the main advocates for American Indians and Alaska Natives as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee until his recent retirement. "It reflected the president's interest in Native American issues. We made promises for many, many decades that we have broken. He and all of us understand the need to begin addressing that."
Last week, Gillette shifted from her job in public engagement at the White house to the Interior Department, where she'll be a deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development, including ensuring the president's initiatives are carried out. It's a move Johnson Pata described as "a good sign, because she is a doer."
"The work has really just begun," Gillette said. "It's a wonderful start, but we're by no means finished."
Tribal leaders already have a list ready for her. Tribes are particularly interested in energy development, said Ron Allen, tribal chairman and chief executive officer of Washington state's Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. They'd like to work on some relatively small changes, including how the IRS classifies tax-exempt bonds for tribal governments. They'd also like to see a renewed focus on jobs — key on reservations with as much as 60 percent unemployment.
"For the most part, our communities are in out of sight, out of mind, out of the way, not in the best locations," he said. "That means infrastructure doesn't reach people — everything from roads to broadband. So how are you going to be competitive to entice industry?"
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