President Obama - WHTNC 2016 - Photo: Vincent Schilling
Vincent Schilling
Obama tipped a traditional cedar hat at his eighth and last White House Tribal Nations Conference

Obama’s Last Tribal Nations - An Administration of Promises Kept to Indian Country

Vincent Schilling

In the history of politics and Indian country, more than several  politicians have come up short in delivering on campaign promises. Over the past eight years, however, Indian Country has learned that Barack Obama is not that type of politician. He made promises to Indian Country when he first ran for president eight years ago, and he made many more once in office. And he delivered. Just as important, he took the time to understand the issues facing so many Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, and he opened his heart to Native people all over North America.

As his time in the White House continues to shrink, Many tribal leaders, Native youth and more have echoed that Obama has been the best president for Natives in at least a generation. NCAI President Brian Cladoosby once told ICTMN, “President Obama is the best President and the Obama Administration has been the best administration for Native people in history.”

There is still so much to do, but so much was accomplished under his leadership.

Eight Years of Firsts

A famous promise Obama made to Natives came while he was still running for office. It was spurred by Lindsay Early, of the Comanche Nation in Oklahoma, who wrote him a letter explaining that she had screamed with joy while listening to one of his speeches. “If you’re President and somebody screams, that can mean many things, usually,” said Obama amidst laughter.  “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not so good. But, according to Lindsay, it was good. And I answered back, I hear you girls, and when I’m elected I won’t forget you.

Obama’s Last Tribal Nations Conference - Photo: Vincent Schilling

At the 8th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama said to Early, “Lindsay, I want you to know that I heard you. I didn't forget you.”

One of the most enduring and endearing images of Obama’s time in office came from a visit he and his wife made to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation, where they met with a handful of students who spoke about how alcoholism, poverty and suicide had scarred their lives. Both the president and the First Lady cried that day, and Obama later explained that he and his wife were so moved by these young people, “carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking.”

As it was a historic time the hashtag #PrezRezVisit trended nationally on social media echoing the visit of Obama’s visit to Standing Rock.

In an ICTMN interview with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, she said the encounter at Standing Rock influenced Obama to tell his administration to make efforts to visit Indian country, aggressively  overhaul the Indian educational system and focus on improving conditions for Native American youths.

“He took me by both shoulders and said, ‘I expect you to do something.’” said Jewell.

There was one more big promise Obama made on the campaign trail, and another that he delivered on. During a visit to the Crow Nation in May 2008, he promised to host an annual summit with tribal leaders to ensure that they had a seat at the proverbial table, in this case, the one where federal policy toward Indian Country is set. And he did. The 8th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference (WHTNC) convened on September 26 in Washington D.C.

It was a joyous gathering, but also a bittersweet one, since it was to be the last one attended by President Obama. As a supplement to this historic occasion, the White House released a massive plan of continued action with and for Indian Country.

See Related: White House Outlines Massive Outreach to Indian Country at Tribal Nations Conference

See Related: Trending in Indian Country: "PrezRezVisit" Gained National Attention

The day after the WHTNC, the Obama administration hosted the second annual Tribal Youth Gathering as part of the Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) movement, in which hundreds of Native youth worked with federal agencies and officials to enhance their leadership skills.

In an historic agreement with the Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of the Interior on Tuesday, the Obama Administration also approved the first phase of the Navajo Nation’s request to implement an alternative system of accountability for schools. The new educational system will unite 66 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)-funded schools in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and will allow the tribe to take greater control of the education of its students with a single system of standards, assessments and accountability.

See Related: Obama Administration Gives Historic Control of Education System to Navajo Nation

There was that and so much more to herald last week from D.C. As President Obama took the stage at the 8th Annual WHTNC, National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby dared to ignore a sage bit of advice from Politico that says presidents should never wear hats given to them, even if it’s from an adoring fan. Moments after the President took the stage, Cladoosby wrapped him in a traditional blanket, then took off his cedar hat and placed it on Obama’s head.

With a huge smile, Obama acknowledged the gesture and the audience by tipping the cedar hat to the crowd.

See Related: A Cedar Hat for Obama: At His Final Tribal Nations Conference

Obama then addressed the crowd, and used the occasion to review what he and they had accomplished together during the past eight years. He spoke of the restoration of 428,000 acres of tribal homelands, the $1.9 billion Cobell Land Buy-Back program, and the reauthorization of VAWA. “Together, we’ve strengthened your sovereignty, reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act so that tribes can prosecute those who commit domestic violence against women in Indian Country, whether they’re Native American or not. We’ve worked to ensure your right to equal justice under the law, and given more power to tribal courts and police.”

He also spoke of how the government would continue to invest in clean energy, continue the push to get rural communities access to high-speed internet, maintain the focus on affordable healthcare for Indian country and the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Obama added that his administration had invested in job training and tribal colleges and universities, and had worked to return control of Indian education to tribal nations. “As we prepare our young people for the demands of a global economy, we’re also teaching them their own language and their own culture. Because we believe that all our native youth deserve a future as bright as any American child, without having to leave the land of their fathers and mothers. That’s what’s driven our work. And through Generation Indigenous, we’ve worked to connect more of our young people to each other, in one big network of opportunity across the country.”

Obama also spoke about how much his interactions with Natives have done for him.

President Obama at his last WHTNC:  I didn't forget you.  And I want everybody in this auditorium and all the folks back home in your respective communities to know that this whole time, I've heard you. Photo: Vincent Schilling

While being interrupted several times by bursts of applause and laughter, he said, “Today, the most important thing I want to say is thank you. After almost eight years as your President, I have been so privileged to learn from you and spend time with many of you...  My trips to your nations and communities are days that I will never forget....

He also praised the members of his administration who have embraced Indian Country. “I’ve been proud of what we’ve been able to do together. We haven’t solved every issue. We haven’t righted every wrong. But together, we’ve made significant progress in almost every area.”

He then brought his interactions with Natives full circle, by referring back to Early, who’d written him that letter eight years ago. “Lindsay, I want you to know that I heard you.  I didn't forget you.  And I want everybody in this auditorium and all the folks back home in your respective communities to know that this whole time, I've heard you.  I have seen you. And I hope I've done right by you. And I hope I've set a direction that others will follow.

“Thank you all for your partnership,” said Obama. “Thank you for this journey.”

Follow ICTMN’s Arts and Entertainment, Pow Wow’s and Sports Editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling

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2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference