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A Time for Change? President Obama on Indian Country and Native Nations

U.S. President Barack Obama has been heralded for taking more actions in the first 30 days of his administration than some presidents have done in their entire service as president.In his first few days in office, Obama issued executive orders and presidential memoranda to direct the U.S. military to develop plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, reduce the secrecy given to presidential records, order the closing of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, change procedures to promote disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, and reverse President Bush’s ban on federal funding to foreign establishments that allow abortions. By February, he signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus package, declared combat operations will end in Iraq within 18 months, and lifted of restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem-cell studies.

However, on Feb. 6, 2009, Obama’s administration also registered its retrograde position on a significant Indian preference case, despite promises to include more Native Americans in the federal government. As reported on, the Department of Justice filed a notice of appeal of a decision that backed a broad Indian preference policy at the Department of the Interior. The Obama administration’s appeal is in line with both the Reagan administration and the Bush administration, which had restricted the Indian preference policy at the U.S. Department of the Interior. This meant that American Indians and Alaska Natives were not given first consideration for several hundred jobs under the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs or within the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. Under the restrictive policy, according to court documents, only 17 out of 550 positions at the agency were covered by Indian preference. In March 2008, Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan rejected the limited views of these past administrations and determined that Indian preference applies to all posts that “directly and primarily” relate to Indian programs. The judge’s final ruling from December 2008 is what the new administration said it will appeal.

The principle of Indian preference did not emerge as an affirmative action policy to address historical exclusions based on race; instead, it is grounded in the Indian Reorganization Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1934. Section 12 states that qualified Indian employees will be given preference for positions at the “Indian Office, in the administration of functions or services affecting any Indian tribe.” Indian preferences were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535 (1974), a legal case about the constitutionality of hiring preferences given to Indians within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the court, the purpose of the preference is to give “Indians a greater participation in their own self-government; to further the government’s trust obligation toward the Indian tribes; and to reduce the negative effect of having non-Indians administer matters that affect Indian tribal life.”

Many people throughout Indian Country who worked on Obama’s campaign understandably feel betrayed. How can the president reconcile his stated commitment to a nation-to-nation relationship when his administration seems bent on appealing the ruling on Indian preferences? It seems Obama’s administration is sending a signal that it does not trust Native people to manage their own affairs.

The case of Eloise Cobell speaks too well to the legacy of the mismanagement of Indian affairs. She is the lead plaintiff in a case with approximately 500,000 other Indian plaintiffs in the long-running Indian trust mismanagement suit against the Department of the Interior.  Cobell recently expressed her disappointment with the Obama administration, as reported by Rob Capriccioso in Indian Country Today earlier this week. She is dismayed by the approach to the case taken by Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior. In the case, which was first filed in 1996, the plaintiffs alleged mismanagement of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior for Indian trustees since 1887. The case has gone through numerous appeals and will be heard before a Washington, D.C., circuit appellate court May 11, 2009. As Capriccioso reported, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in August that Indian account holders deserved $455.6 million for 121 years of trust mismanagement — a figure less than the total amount spent by Congress and the federal government over the past decades trying to fix the trust management system.

Despite Cobell’s calls for a settlement, neither Salazar, nor anyone else from the Obama administration has contacted her. No wonder she is increasingly skeptical of the promise of “change” for Indian country the Obama administration promised. And yet, during his campaign Obama declared, “We’re going to end nearly a century of mismanagement of the Indian trusts. We’re going to work together to settle unresolved cases, figure out how the trusts ought to operate and make sure that they’re being managed responsibly – today, tomorrow and always.” He delivered this message to the National Congress of American Indians in October 2008 by video teleconference, and the transcript was later published as an opinion piece in Indian Country Today.

Obama committed himself to “a full partnership” with Native nations. He even went so far as to pronounce, “Indian nations have never asked much of the United States – only for what was promised by the treaty obligations made to their forebears. So let me be absolutely clear – I believe treaty commitments are paramount law, and I will fulfill those commitments as president of the United States.”

Let us hold Obama to his promise. Although Obama has selected several Native individuals for key posts in his administration, they do not come close to “a full partnership,” and are undercut by his administration’s other actions with regard to Indian preferences and the long history of trust abuses by the U.S. government as they have manifest through the Interior and every other governmental institution. We simply must assert our political will to ensure that “change” becomes more than mere political rhetoric.

Dr. J. Kehaulani Kauanui is an associate professor of American studies and anthropology at Wesleyan University. She is the producer and host of a public affairs radio program, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,”on WESU, Middletown, Conn., which is syndicated on several Pacifica affiliate-stations and and archived online.   She is the author of, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity, (Duke University Press, 2008). Kauanui serves on the Advisory Board for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.

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