Crow chairman visits Obama in Oval Office

Susan Olp, Of The Gazette
6/30/09

WASHINGTON – Cedric Black Eagle, chairman of the Crow Nation, knew he’d be in Washington, D.C., last month to discuss energy policy with officials and politicians.

He didn’t know he’d also meet with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office.

“I was caught completely by surprise,” Black Eagle said.

Black Eagle has more than a passing relationship to the president. In May 2008, presidential candidate Obama campaigned in Crow Agency.

During his one-day visit, he was adopted into the tribe by Hartford “Sonny” and Mary Black Eagle, Cedric’s parents. That made Obama a member of the Whistling Water Clan, a child of the Newly Made Lodge – and Cedric Black Eagle’s brother.

It wasn’t the first time the two had spoken. In April 2007, Black Eagle, then vice chairman of the tribe, was one of many on a conference call with Obama.

The candidate was trying to get a feel for the key issues of concern to American Indians. Black Eagle was asked his opinion during the call.

“We thought, and I think everybody else did, that if he had a Native American policy adviser who was Native American and came from Indian country to advise him on day-to-day issues, that would be good,” Black Eagle said.

That recommendation came to fruition June 15. The president appointed Kimberly Teehee, a member of the Cherokee Nation, to be a senior policy adviser for Native American affairs.

In April 2008, Black Eagle met Obama in Butte, when the candidate spoke the same night as his presidential rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton. Two months later, Black Eagle and his parents attended the July 3 picnic in Butte.

“(Obama’s) two girls wanted to meet my mom and dad,” Black Eagle said. “The Secret Service and the candidate took them to his bus to meet his wife and girls.”

Black Eagle and his family then attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and once again got to meet with the Obamas and the Bidens. Black Eagle was also part of the contingent of Crow riders who rode on horseback in the January inaugural parade in Washington, D.C.

Still, when Black Eagle was one of five tribal chiefs asked by the Council of Energy Resource Tribes to travel to Washington to lobby on behalf of Native energy issues, a meeting with the president wasn’t on his agenda. He and the rest of the group met at different times with members of Congress, administration officials and representatives of the departments of Interior and Energy.

The tribal leaders also met with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs. On June 9 the leaders had to provide identification to get credentials to enter the Eisenhower Executive Building, which houses a majority of the White House staff.

On Wednesday the tribal leaders met with officials in that building, including Jodi Gillette, deputy associate director in the Intergovernmental Affairs office. Gillette asked Black Eagle to stay behind as the others got ready to go to their next meeting, telling him someone wanted to meet with him.

“And then we went outside toward the West Wing of the White House,” he said. “On the way, she said, ‘It’s the president who wants to meet with you.’ And I said, ‘Really? That’s good. I want to meet with him, too.’”

Black Eagle went through two sets of security and was taken to a waiting area in the West Wing. One of the president’s assistants told Black Eagle the president was ready to see him and brought him to an area just outside the Oval Office.

“And he was standing there and he came over and said, ‘It’s good to see you,’ and I shook his hand and I said, ‘It’s good to see you, brother.’”

The two chatted for a few moments, and Obama invited Black Eagle into the Oval Office. After the two posed for pictures, they sat down to talk.

The president asked Black Eagle why he was in town, and the Crow leader talked about energy, including the tribe’s coal-to-liquid project and its water rights settlement, which is wending its way through Congress.

The two also talked briefly about other issues, including health care on the reservation.

“And he asked about my mom and dad and how they were,” Black Eagle said. “And it was personal. I think he respects the personal idea of being adopted into an Indian tribe, an Indian family.”

After about 10 minutes, a presidential aide signaled it was time to end the meeting. Obama walked with Black Eagle out of the Oval Office.

“And then some people grabbed him, and he said, ‘I’ll talk to you later,’” Black Eagle said. “And I said, ‘All right, I’ll see you later.’”

And the Crow leader left the West Wing. Gillette told Black Eagle she was surprised by the visit, telling him that not many people get to have one-on-one conversations with the president.

“And I went outside, on to the street, and then it kind of hit me,” Black Eagle said. “I’m in D.C. quite a bit and I look at the White House, and we’ve done the White House tour. But I didn’t think I’d end up in the Oval Office to meet with the president, to take up any of his time. I was really surprised and humbled by it.”

Reprinted with permission of The Billings Gazette.

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