Barack Obama has done something that none of the previous 43 U.S. presidents ever did: He met with tribal leaders every single year of his term.
On Wednesday, the man known as Barack Black Eagle among American Indians met again with 566 leaders from federally recognized tribes from around the United States at his fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called it a “promise made, promised delivered,” recalling how Obama had pledged yearly visits with tribes when he first ran for president in 2008. That’s the same year that Obama received his Indian name, after being adopted by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle in a traditional Native American ceremony on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana.
More promises came at the daylong conference as Obama and many of his Cabinet secretaries said tribes can expect more federal aid during the president’s second term – for education, health care, jobs, food programs and energy projects, among other things.
“It’s about time, for all we’ve been through,” said Kevin Bonds, a member of the tribal council for the Tule River Indian Tribe near Porterville, Calif.
But while tribal leaders applauded the president’s efforts to reach out on a consistent basis, many said in interviews that they’ll wait and see whether Obama can deliver during a time of budget cutting.
“I’m always encouraged to hear these words here, but I just don’t know if they’re really doing their jobs on the ground level,” said Nathan Small, chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council, the governing body for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in southeastern Idaho.
He had an idea on how the administration could help: “We’ve got two Superfund sites on our reservation and I’d like to see them clean it up rather than cover it up, as they’re proposing right now: Throw some dirt on it and it’ll be all right.”
Frank Blackcloud, chairman of the Sac and Fox Tribal Council, the governing body for the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa, said he fears the effects of the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that will take effect if Congress doesn’t develop a new deficit-reduction plan by Jan. 1.
“The fiscal cliff would impact every tribe,” Blackcloud said, shrugging off the latest pledges. “We’ve been told this and that, and they’ve made promises, but how they fulfill it remains to be seen.”
Steve Ortiz, chairman of the tribal council for the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Kansas, said that tribes benefit merely by getting a chance to meet with the president each year.
“We want to be heard, and that’s crucial: If you’re not seen, you’re not heard,” he said.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the federal government and states must do more to address “unacceptably low” graduation rates among American Indian students. He criticized nine states for having graduation rates of lower than 60 percent: Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah and Washington.
The administration released a report boasting of its achievements, citing more support for infrastructure projects, economic development, education, health care, justice and crime programs, home ownership programs and tribal self-determination, among others.
And in a brief speech at the end of the conference, Obama vowed to work with tribes “to make sure that the promise of America is fully realized for every Native American.”
The president paid tribute to Hartford Black Eagle, the Crow leader who died last week at age 78 from a respiratory illness. Black Eagle and his wife adopted Obama weeks before the 2008 Montana Democratic primary, as the then-senator sought support from tribal members.
Obama recalled how Black Eagle had known intolerance and injustice growing up in Montana, getting disciplined at school for speaking his native language and seeing signs on restaurants that said: “No Indians or dogs allowed.” But Obama said Black Eagle grew up to become a man revered by others, who strived to preserve his culture.
“To many Native Americans, he was a spiritual healer,” Obama said. “And I knew him warmly – for a few years at least – as an adopted father.”
Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in Washington state, introduced Obama to the crowd, saying he “definitely qualifies as the first American Indian president,” joking that Obama has an Indian name, loves basketball, grew up poor and has a theme song called “Hail to the Chief.”
But Cladoosby said: “I can honestly stand here and tell you that the last four years have been the best four years for Native Americans that I have seen from any administration in the history of the United States.”