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President Barack Obama told tribal leaders during the final White House Tribal Nations Conference: "This whole time, I've heard you."

Barack Obama: ‘Emotionally and Intellectually Committed to Indian Country’

Alysa Landry
11/1/16

Editor’s note: Voters this year will elect the 45th president of the United States. This is the last in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.

During his eighth and final White House Tribal Nations Conference, President Barack Hussein Obama delivered an intimate message to Native Americans.

“This whole time, I’ve heard you,” he told tribal leaders who gathered in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. But Obama’s comments were intended for a wider audience—all Natives in their respective home communities. “I have seen you. And I hope I’ve done right by you.”

The remarks, which came near the end of Obama’s presidency, revealed an emotional connection to Native Americans, said Kevin Washburn, who served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under Obama from 2012 to 2016.

“Early on, as a candidate, Obama identified Indian country as something that was important to him, an area where he personally wanted to make a difference,” said Washburn, a law professor at the University of New Mexico and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “From the beginning, we saw that he was intellectually committed to Indian country. By the end, he was emotionally committed. I don’t think we’ve seen that before.”

Obama, whose two-term presidency ends in January, began championing for Indians prior to taking office. In fact, Obama announced his federal Indian policy six months before defeating John McCain in the 2008 election.

“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” Obama, then a U.S senator from Illinois, said during a May 2008 campaign speech on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. “My Indian policy starts with honoring the unique government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government and ensuring that our treaty responsibilities are met and ensuring that Native Americans have a voice in the White House.”

Obama, who was adopted into the Crow Nation that day, promised to appoint an American Indian policy adviser to his senior staff and “end nearly a century of mismanagement of Indian trust.” He also pledged to host an annual summit with tribal leaders.

RELATED: President Obama Remembers Crow Father During Tribal Nations Conference

“That’s how we’ll make sure that you have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about your lives, about your nations, about your people,” he said.

Ten months after taking office, Obama hosted his first White House Tribal Nations Conference, which he recognized as “the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders” in history. Having already dispatched department secretaries to listening sessions in Indian country, Obama launched a “lasting conversation” with tribal leaders that would span the rest of his presidency.

The conversation began by acknowledging “a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation,” Obama said. He recognized that recent history also was marked by too little communication between tribes and the federal government, but said he was “absolutely committed” to changing that.

“It’s a commitment that's deeper than our unique nation-to-nation relationship,” he said. “It’s a commitment to getting this relationship right, so that you can be full partners in the American economy, and so your children and your grandchildren can have an equal shot at pursuing the American Dream.”

Obama used his first Tribal Nations Conference to sign a presidential memorandum directing every cabinet agency to provide a plan within 90 days—and on an annual basis thereafter—detailing its consultations with tribes, plans to implement change in Indian country and regular progress reports. The memorandum came nine years after President Bill Clinton issued a similar executive order, but agencies had largely failed to follow through.

“History has shown that failure to include the voices of tribal officials in formulating policy affecting their communities has all too often led to undesirable and, at times, devastating and tragic results,” the memorandum states. “By contrast, meaningful dialogue between Federal officials and tribal officials has greatly improved Federal policy toward Indian tribes.”

Obama went on to host a Tribal Nations Conference every year—and hold his cabinet secretaries accountable, Washburn said. As a result, federal agencies rallied unprecedented devotion to Indian Affairs and accomplished more for Indians than any other administration in history.

“Virtually every agency improved somehow in what it did for Indian country,” Washburn said. “By the second or third Tribal Nations Conference, secretaries knew they had to deliver. That made them keenly aware of Indians. The conference drove policy like nothing has before.”

Born in Hawaii in 1961 to a white mother and an African American father, Obama split his childhood years between Hawaii and Indonesia. He graduated from Columbia University and worked as a community organizer in Chicago before pursuing a career in law.

Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, then taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for 12 years. He served four years as an Illinois state senator and four years as a United States senator representing Illinois, a post he abandoned in 2008 when he was elected as president. A Democrat, Obama will have served two terms in office, from 2009 to 2017.

He inherited a country in the throes of an economic recession and a war in Iraq. He also inherited a lackluster Indian policy from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who barely acknowledged Native Americans.

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