Thousands of Native people from across the nation are in the capital this week to celebrate the Tuesday inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, a man who is bringing Indian Country with him to the Oval Office.
Eleven tribes will be participating in Tuesday’s inaugural parade. A powwow and American Indian Inaugural Ball will follow the swearing-in ceremony.
More discussions with Obama than all the presidents of the last four decades
“We’ve had more discussions and more face-to-face efforts with him and his administration-to-be than we’ve had with all the presidents in the course of the years that I remember,” said Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, who has been a tribal leader for nearly four decades.
For those reasons, Garcia and American Indians around the country believe – for the first time in centuries – they will not be ignored by the federal government, and that for the first time they have the unadulterated attention of a U.S. president.
On Monday, the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C., welcomed people who had arrived for the inauguration. Native families began drumming, singing and dancing at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City Hotel as some 400 tribal leaders attended an all-day meeting there.
Tribal leaders spent most of the day discussing federal policy and budget concerns, mainly focusing on Native inclusion in President-elect Barack Obama’s economic stimulus plan.
“Every four years, we celebrate our new president and with that comes a celebration of our resiliency as tribes,” said Nedra Darling, spokesman for the American Indian Society. “We are still here. We remain. We have people here who have driven from North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. I hope we can provide the best time for all people who are here to attend.”
Shoshone Tribal Chairman Ivan Posey of Wyoming and tribal members will march in the parade in honor of Obama, a leader who has inspired their confidence. “We’re hoping for bigger and better things that will help people of color,” he said.
Native America is ready for change, Posey said.
“We just got through eight years in the wilderness – of basically not being on the radar of this Bush administration,” said Chairman Mark McCarro of the Pechanga Band in California. “In Indian Country, there’s a real urgency, collectively, to see real positive concrete change. Tomorrow represents a lot of hope and opportunity that’s long overdue in Indian Country.”
Nicole Hallingstad, vice president of Sealaska Corp. in Juneau, Alaska, arrived for the inauguration to share fellowship with other tribes and to spend the next few days working with federal lawmakers on a land deal that would return approximately 85,000 acres of land to Alaskan Natives.
Obama administration serious about relationship with indigenous people
“We believe – and we’ve been given indication – that this administration is quite serious about its relationship with indigenous people,” said Hallingstad. “We need to address a number of backlogs that have fallen to the wayside during the last eight years.”
Native members of the Obama transition team – Wizipan Garriott, Keith Harper, Yvette Robideaux and John Echohawk – were on hand Monday at the Hyatt to address a number of economic development backlogs. The team spoke on a panel at the tribal strategy meeting. The transition team did not reveal any details on how tribes are being fit into the national economic recovery plan.
But they told the tribal leaders to maintain contact with the Obama administration, ensuring their voice continues to be heard as the stimulus plan evolves.
“Indian Country has to be a part of this effort if we’re ever going to come out of the huge depression we’ve been in, in some cases almost centuries,” said David Gipp, president of the United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota. “We hope President Barack Obama lives up to his word.”
Tribal leaders submit economic stimulus proposals to the Obama team
Tribal leaders nationwide have been submitting economic stimulus proposals to the Obama team, outlining their needs with detailed “shovel-ready” ideas that would boost faltering tribal economies.
“It’s up to us as tribal leaders to push that,” said Rodney Bordeaux, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota. “We heard some good comments from the transition team. We have a seat at the table, but we have to make sure we continue to be there. If we don’t, they could easily forget us.”
Some tribes submitted stimulus plans to Obama to address basic infrastructure needs in their communities, such as new health care buildings, better roads and improved water supply systems.
Tribal Chairman Joseph Brings Plenty of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota submitted a nearly $70 million stimulus plan. His reservation is home to the poorest county in the United States.
Tribes ask Obama administration for clean water
Even though his community desperately needs jobs, they are asking for something more important. They need clean, uncontaminated water.
“You have a lot of heavy metals being dumped into the water, and it’s coming right into where our intake is,” he said. “We have a lot of rare cancers on our reservation. We need to have our water project funded.”
Other tribes focus on health care, roads, and public safety
Tribal Chairman Carl Venne of the Crow Nation in Montana said his tribe’s top stimulus priorities focused on health care, roads and public safety.
“Everything has been going downhill over the years,” he said. “They’ve forgotten about Indians. That’s why we’re in a crisis.”
Venne said the rest of the country is in an uproar about 6 percent unemployment rates, while reservation unemployment rates can soar upward of 80 percent. In a show of resiliency, the Crow will don warbonnets and buckskin finery as they ride 24 horses in the parade on Tuesday.
After the inauguration, Obama’s work begins.
“I’ve heard him say he wants to restore some of the treaties,” said Tribal Chairman Amen Sheridan of the Omaha Tribe in Nebraska. “Today, we may have an opportunity to see some of the treaties be acknowledged for the best interest of Indian Country. It’s important to be here and help support Obama.”
Some, however, remained cautiously optimistic about how far Obama can pull Indian Country from the trenches.
“Every candidate makes a lot of promises, and President-elect Obama has made a lot of promises to Indian Country, some I think are going to be difficult to achieve. But I think his heart is in the right place and he’ll try his level best to make things better,” said former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Republican who arrived in Washington to attend his fifth presidential inauguration.
Garcia said he’s seen some good signs that the new president, indeed, will make a difference.
“There’s a lot of listening going on with the Obama administration. If you really want to know what’s going on in other people’s lives, you must be willing to listen,” he said. “That means so much.”
He said the presence of so many Indians in Washington shows “our people are tuned in, and have bought into and support Obama’s effort. The fact that President Obama and his campaign came to visit Indian Country is a primary indicator that things are going to be different and that they will continue to listen to us and that we will continue to work together, nation to nation.”