WASHINGTON – Before the largest gathering of tribal leaders in U.S. history Thursday, President Barack Obama pledged $50 million in funding for tribal colleges and vowed his administration would work to address problems facing Native Americans, from health disparities to economic development.
At the Tribal Nations Conference, held at the Department of the Interior, the president also signed a memorandum calling on every cabinet agency to give him a detailed plan to improve the relationship between the government and tribal communities.
“You will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House,” Obama said to a sustained ovation.
Tribal leaders and Native American scholars had expressed optimism about the outcome of Obama’s tribal conference, but some remain skeptical that the administration can bring about substantive changes.
“Today is very historic,” said Brian Cladoosby, chairman of the Swinomish Tribe in Washington State, speaking to Diverse during a noon break at the conference. “The president made a promise to us before the election and he kept his promise. We have had so many promises broke in the past.”
Obama’s invitation to the 564 federally recognized tribes drew representatives from 386 of them. This is the first meeting of its kind since former President Bill Clinton held one 15 years ago.
“I think it holds great promise for federally recognized tribes in this country to be heard by the president,” said Dr. Jordan Kerber, director of Native American Studies at Colgate University. “It’s quite a rare occurrence that voices of diverse Native American groups are represented at this level of government.”
Before the conference, various tribal leaders said they wanted Obama to address key concerns such as access to health care and economic development, and he did.
“We know that as long as Native Americans die of illnesses like tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza at far higher rates than the rest of the population, then we’re going to have to do more to address disparities in health care delivery,” Obama said in his opening remarks.
On education, Obama focused on improving college-completion rates, a signature piece to his overall higher education agenda.
“We know that Native Americans face some of the lowest matriculation rates and highest high school- and college-dropout rates,” he said, “That’s why my budget provided $50 million in advanced funding for tribal colleges. … Students who study at a tribal college are eight times less likely to drop out of higher education, they continue on to a four-year institution at a higher rate than students in community colleges and nearly 80 percent end up in careers that help their tribal nation.”
For other tribal leaders, the key issues are regaining land taken from them centuries ago and reaffirming the sovereignty of their tribes.
“We need to be respected,” said Mike Williams of the Akiak Native Community in Alaska. “Tribal sovereignty needs to be honored.”
Gail Green, tribal chair of the Wiyot Tribe of California, took issue with the townhall-style meeting set up, at which Obama answered questions from tribal representatives.
“I’m a little frustrated,” she said. “I don’t think the president meets with foreign dignitaries in an auditorium.” It didn’t show the same level of respect for the tribal leaders, she added.
Scholars warn that Obama will have a difficult time tackling these issues.
“Some of the biggest obstacles revolve around the negative stereotypes that are out there today, concerning native peoples,” Kerber said. Many Americans have a false perception that American Indians are wealthy from tribe-controlled casinos. “Basic conditions are still wanting, people are still in need, and the U.S. government can assist in that regard,” Kerber said, though he expects there will be resistance from the general public to any federal help for tribes.
Another concern is that the president does not have the authority to make major changes in nation-to-nation relationships between the United States and Native American nations.
“Any major changes in U.S.-Native relationships is going to have to come through Congress,” said Dr. Eric Cheyfitz, director of the American Indian Program at Cornell University. “He can tinker around with the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the Interior Department, rules and regulations can be changed, but as far as fundamental change,” that is not something the president can do.
“Clinton made promises, but nothing happened,” Cheyfitz said. “Indian country is the poorest part of the nation. They’re desperately in need of funding and services. I don’t see anything in the Obama budget that’s going to change that significantly.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.