WASHINGTON – While President Barack Obama’s popularity has slipped in public opinion polls, he found plenty of support Wednesday among one key constituency: the 566 leaders of federally recognized Indian tribes.
“I’d rank him as high as I can go; a 10, really, to be honest with you,” said Leo Lolnitz, first chief of the Koyukuk Native Village in Alaska.
Brian Cladoosby, the chairman of Washington state’s Swinomish Indian Tribal Community for the past 17 years, said Obama was “second to none” when compared with other U.S. presidents.
Tribal leaders consider the occupant of the White House one of their own. To them, he’s Barack Black Eagle Obama, having received his Indian name in 2008 when a couple on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana formally adopted him. And on Wednesday, they got a chance to meet with him yet again as the president kept a campaign promise by hosting his fifth White House Tribal Nations Conference.
In a 14-minute speech to the tribal leaders, Obama said he’d make his first visit to Indian Country as president sometime next year, though he didn’t say where he plans to go. He visited the Montana reservation when he was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in his first presidential campaign.
The annual gathering at the Interior Department gives tribal leaders a chance to make pitches for what they want from Washington in the coming year. In 2014, tribal leaders want an end to the budget cuts known as sequestration and more authority to manage their own affairs, among other things.
A dozen Cabinet officials met with the tribal leaders, promising more help for such challenges as fighting crime, fixing schools and getting better health care.
But some tribal leaders said the president and his team had been too quick to promise and slow to deliver.
“He’s reaching out to us. We really appreciate that, but there’s not a whole lot of things that have happened,” said Bryan Brewer, the president of South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux Tribe. “I feel there’s been a lot of promises to us, but we’re still struggling.”
For example, Brewer said, Obama should have done more to protect tribes from the cuts caused by sequestration: “We should have been exempted from a lot of those things, but we haven’t.”
Obama and his team outlined their list of accomplishments, including: renewing the Violence Against Women Act, which makes it easier for tribes to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence; getting an additional 230,000 acres placed into trust on behalf of the tribes; spending more on law enforcement, schools and emergency relief; launching a nearly $2 billion buyback program later this year to return thousands of property parcels to tribes; and creating the first White House Council on Native American Affairs.
Obama said the poverty rate was too high in Indian Country and that the federal government must do more to expand job opportunities. And he said he wanted to build a stronger relationship between tribes and the federal government, “based on trust and respect.”
The president said he also wanted to make it easier for more tribal members to get access to health care. He saluted the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority in Washington state, where he said tribal members had created the country’s first tribal family-medicine residency program.
“Patients are cared for in a culturally sensitive way, often by Native American staff,” Obama said.
Cladoosby, the Swinomish chairman, who is also the president of the National Congress of American Indians, noted that after Wednesday’s event, Obama has now met with tribal leaders each year of his presidency. The chairman said that was unprecedented.
“The tribes got one meeting with President Clinton,” Cladoosby said. “During the Bush administration, we got zero meetings.”