By Rob Capriccioso
The meeting, held at the U.S. Department of the Interior headquarters blocks away from the White House, signified a promise kept by Obama, who told Native Americans when he was first running for president in 2008 that he would regularly meet with them in an effort to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship between tribes and the United States.
“Every year I look forward to this event,” Obama said in an afternoon speech to the assembled tribal leaders. “It’s especially wonderful to see so many friends that I’ve gotten to know from various nations all across the country. You guys inspire me every single day, and whenever I’ve traveled to your home states there’s been such a warm welcome that I’ve received.”
The president also highlighted some of his administration’s accomplishments on behalf of Native Americans, but said there is more work to be done, especially in terms of economic development.
“A focus that a lot of you have spoken to me about and that we’re now really trying to drill down on is expanding economic opportunity for Native Americans,” Obama said. How his team will “drill down” that big goal remains to be seen, and the president did not offer concrete details.
Federal support for tribal job growth was of particular interest for many tribal attendees, who have noted that there have been few bold and encompassing plans to reduce reservation poverty and grow Indian economies under the Obama administration to date. Some tribal leaders, like President Tony Sanchez Jr. of the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida, planned before the conference to press administration officials on economic development matters, including whether the administration is supportive of a plan for a national Native lands lottery that would allow tribes to collaborate to build a lottery system similar to that of some states. Overall, tribal gaming was not mentioned much at the conference, and whether the administration supports expansion in this area remains unclear.
By Alysa Landry
The scope of the conference is a testament to the changing views of tribal issues and triumphs, he said.
"The president makes this commitment, and the cabinet hears from us directly," said Cladoosby, who introduced Obama to the crowd. "There's no one in between."
Other tribal leaders also praised the conference, saying it was refreshing to have a president who went out of his way to listen to concerns from American Indians and Alaska Natives.
"I think it's a great opportunity to continue what the president has built the last three years, to continue moving forward with Indian Country's agenda," said Gary Hayes, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
"There are so many broken promises, but this president has been able to fulfill his promise of being with tribal leaders every year," he said. "I think it's a win-win for the president and for the tribes, and hopefully it will continue for the next four years."
"I'm always encouraged to hear these words here, but I just don't know if they're really doing their jobs on the ground level," said Nathan Small, chairman of the Fort Hall Business Council, the governing body for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in southeastern Idaho.
He had an idea on how the administration could help: "We've got two Superfund sites on our reservation and I'd like to see them clean it up rather than cover it up, as they're proposing right now: Throw some dirt on it and it'll be all right."
Frank Blackcloud, chairman of the Sac and Fox Tribal Council, the governing body for the Meskwaki Nation in Iowa, said he fears the effects of the "fiscal cliff," a combination of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that will take effect if Congress doesn't develop a new deficit-reduction plan by Jan. 1.
"The fiscal cliff would impact every tribe," Blackcloud said, shrugging off the latest pledges. "We've been told this and that, and they've made promises, but how they fulfill it remains to be seen."
Below: "President Barack Obama greets Swinomish Chairman Brian Cladoosby at the fourth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 5." (Rob Capriccioso)