Native American leaders express mixed views on Obama administration’s progress on promises

  • The Washington Post | December 16th, 2010  

    A group of Native American leaders met with President Obama on Wednesday to discuss what they see as slow progress on several promises made by the administration. Their concerns include the dire economic straits facing many tribes and continued U.S. encroachment on tribal sovereignty.

    Tribal leaders will have a number of meetings in Washington this week to address those issues as a part of the second White House Tribal Nations Conference. Obama, who is to speak at a gathering of more than 560 tribal chiefs and presidents Thursday, has described the event as key to his effort to strengthen the federal government’s relationship with Native Americans.

    Participants in Wednesday’s meeting emerged from the White House convinced that the administration is attuned to their concerns, although some expressed frustration at the pace of change.

    “These meetings are . . . both symbolic and substantive,” Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement after the meeting with Obama. “Last year’s summit was historic in size and ambition. We anticipate the results of the meetings with the President today and tomorrow will change the future of Indian Country for generations to come.”

    Obama is proud of the steps he has taken to address the issues raised by Native Americans, White House spokesman ShinInouye said.

    “His record clearly shows that we’ve made a lot of progress,” Inouye said by e-mail. “He deeply values and appreciates the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal government and Indian country, and we continue to build upon and strengthen that relationship.”

    Native American leaders have mixed assessments of the work. Many leaders praised the White House focus on Indian country, but others said some problems remain entrenched.

    Seneca Nation President Robert Porter complained of continued interference with tribal sovereignty, such as a federal law passed this year restricting mail-order tobacco sales. That law damaged one of his tribe’s principal economic engines and cost 2,000 jobs.

    “We were very enthused from [Obama's] promises, because they were rooted in a notion of partnership that we hadn’t heard from a president before,” said Porter, whose tribe lives in Upstate New York. “But what we’ve seen is a much more timid approach to the handling of Indian affairs from his administration. A considerable amount of time has been spent cleaning up old messes, but they are not really moving forward on issues that could change the lives of Indian people.”

    Some of those “old messes” include the resolution of a class-action lawsuit in which Native Americans accused the federal government of mismanaging their land trusts. The government settled the case with a $3.4 billion compensation fund. That action followed a $760 million case the administration settled in October with Indian farmers and agreements with four tribes to settle long-standing disputes over water rights.

    Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, praised the Obama administration, which also advocated for the Tribal Law and Order Act. Passed by Congress over the summer, the law gives tribal courts tougher sentencing powers and sets stricter rules to gather and collect more data on crimes, Johnson Pata said.

    “Last year was stellar,” Johnson Pata said. “We’ve had the support and the engagement of being able to have true dialogue with the administration.”

    Tribal leaders have a “zillion” concerns, Johnson Pata said, and they are hoping to pare them down in meetings this week.

    Still, Neyooxet Greymorning, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana, said he worries that the dialogue about building an equitable relationship with tribes over the long term is lip service. Over the years, federal acts passed to favor trial water rights and other issues of sovereignty have been ignored by local and state governments, Greymorning said.

    “It’s one thing for the [federal] government to pass certain legislative acts, but if they don’t back them when those acts aren’t followed out by external sources, then they are spineless acts,” he said.

    Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former U.S. senator from Colorado who has lobbied on Native American issues, said that the Obama administration had shown “sensitivity” to tribal leaders but that “change is going to cost money.”

    “I hope this is more than just a photo op,” he said.