WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama met for the third time with Native American tribal leaders on Friday, signing an executive order on tribal colleges and assuring them "you have a president that's got your back."
Obama has won plaudits among Native Americans by breaking through a logjam of inaction on tribal issues and for giving a voice to their issues with the annual gatherings in Washington. At Friday's conference, Obama announced he had signed an executive order establishing a White House initiative on American Indian and Alaska native education. The initiative will be overseen by an executive director appointed by the interior and education secretaries.
"You have an administration that understands the challenges that you face and most importantly you have a president that's got your back," Obama said, drawing cheers.
Obama reminded the leaders from the 565 federally recognized Native American tribes and representing Alaska natives that he had promised "a true government-to-government relationship" that recognizes "our sometimes painful" history and respects Native American heritage.
"I believe that one day we're going to be able to look back on these years and say that was the turning point ... the moment when we stopped repeating the mistakes of the past and started building a better future," Obama said.
Obama shared the stage briefly with Hartford and Mary Black Eagle, his Crow nation "parents" who "adopted" him during the 2008 campaign. He joked that his "parents" were grateful for not having to experience his "terrible 2s" or "terrible teens."
"They got me after I was a little more polished," Obama said.
Several leaders at the Tribal Nations Conference said Obama had kept his promises to them.
Bill John Baker, principal chief of the largest Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, said before the conference that American Indians have been both "well-served" and "hurt" by other administrations, but Obama has "backed up his words with actions that have made a positive impact on the lives of Native people."
"Obama has done better for tribes than the others, except for the Nixon administration," said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Republican senator from Colorado. President Richard Nixon advocated tribal self-determination as official U.S. policy.
With the accomplishments come greater expectations from a people whose rates of unemployment, violent crime, youth suicides, poverty and high school dropouts are significantly higher than in the rest of the country.
"It's two steps forward, one step backward," Campbell said. "No matter what we do, we have to find a way for Indians to be self-sufficient and not dependent on the federal government, except for those services required by treaty in the old days."
The administration still must implement laws Obama signed and fund lawsuit settlements. Also, tribes want to see the administration push legislation through Congress to get around a 2009 Supreme Court decision limiting the interior secretary's authority to accept land into federal trust on behalf of Indian tribes. The decision has held up economic development for tribes.
Salazar told the leaders Friday the court's decision was a "wrong decision" and needs to be fixed.
"We still need improvements in roads, bridges, schools, hospitals as well as addressing the digital, electrical and clean water disparities that hamper development and quality of life issues for our people," Baker said.
Still, Obama has assembled a respectable bragging list. He has:
— Signed the Tribal Law and Order Act to improve law enforcement and public safety in tribal communities.
— Renewed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and made it permanent.
— Settled the class-action Cobell lawsuit over federal government mismanagement of royalties for oil, gas, timber and grazing leases and an American Indian farmers discrimination lawsuit.
— Nominated Arvo Mikkanen to be a federal judge in Oklahoma. His nomination is awaiting Senate confirmation.
— Launched a test crime-fighting program on four reservations that early results show has led to drops in violent crime in the first year.
"We should be proud of what we've done together, but of course that should sharpen our resolve to do even more because as long as Native Americans face unemployment and poverty rates that are far higher than the national average we are going to have more work to do," Obama said. He said his jobs bill would help.
Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and an Alaska native, said native peoples' enthusiasm for Obama goes deeper.
Obama has embraced Native American tribal sovereignty preserved in the Constitution, court decisions and treaty agreements and made that the foundation for his administration's dealings with tribes, Pata said.
Like former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama appointed a Native American to his Intergovernmental Affairs staff. But he also appointed Kimberly Teehee, a member of the Cherokee Nation, as senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs.
In addition, Obama reminded executive department heads and agencies in a November 2009 memo of their obligation to regularly consult and collaborate with tribal officials on policies that impact Native Americans.
"I think we have made strides under the Obama administration the likes of which tribes have not seen for 30 years," said Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board. Bohlen is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan.
Several agencies have yet to draft policies, according to the National Congress of American Indians.
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