CANNON BALL, N.D. – President Barack Obama made his first trip as president to Indian Country on Friday, pledging to partner with Native American tribes “on just about every issue that touches your lives.”
The visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation – the onetime home of Chief Sitting Bull – was the first by a U.S. president to an Indian reservation since 1999 and was said to be only the fourth such visit by a U.S. president in history.
“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved,” Obama said of Indian Country. “I promised when I ran to be a president who’d change that.”
Obama, who became an honorary member of the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana while campaigning for president in May 2008, said the visit had “special meaning” to him, and he tried a few words in Lakota as the audience laughed.
“I can’t guarantee it’s going to come out perfect,” he said. “I’m going to practice and I’m going to be even better next time.”
First lady Michelle Obama accompanied Obama on the visit. They arrived at the tribal nation’s annual powwow to cheers, songs and a display of American flags and dancers in traditional dress.
Obama, unlike any president before him, has met with tribal leaders every single year of his term. His administration in its first term settled a 13-year-old lawsuit over hundreds of thousands of land trust accounts. The administration last year established the White House Council on Native American Affairs to ensure coordination with Indian Country.
Before Obama arrived, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced plans to overhaul the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education.
The changes will redesign the bureau from a direct provider of education “into an innovative organization that will serve as a capacity builder and service provider to tribes,” Jewell said.
The bureau-funded schools are some of the lowest-performing schools in the country, Jewell said.
Obama said his administration has made “major investments” to help tribes, including roads, high-speed Internet and energy.