Native Americans witness history

Rob Capriccioso
1/23/09

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

In a speech after his swearing-in ceremony, 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.”

Obama did not specifically mention American Indians in his address. He did say that 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 did mention tribes in his inaugural speech, but not specifically Indian tribes: “…we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve.” The statement was part of a sentiment focused on the idea of the nation’s people coming together.

“We need change; the world is changing. … He’s a person of mixed heritage, and with his background, I really feel identification with him.”
- LaDonna Harris, president of Americans for Indian Opportunity


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 G. 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. Several said they couldn’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.

During the inauguration itself, many Native attendees tried to keep in touch with each other by cell phone and text messaging to share their thoughts. Given the large number of calls being made, some had trouble getting service.

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 of Inauguration Day in hopes of getting a good in-person view of the swearing-in ceremony, or via one of several Jumbotron screens brought in to project the ceremony.

Some Native leaders viewed the festivities from the National Museum of the American Indian, which lies just a few hundred yards from the Capitol Building.

More than 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 footsteps of the Capitol Building.

As visitors continued to pack the mall throughout the morning, Obama and his wife, Michelle, attended a religious service at St. John’s Church near the White House.

They then had coffee with now former President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush, along with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Mrs. Jill Biden, at the White House before heading to the Capitol for the official ceremony.

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.”

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