A lot of the buzz about President Obama’s trip to Alaska has centered around his decision to revert to the original name of Mt. McKinley – Mt. Denali (the name that it was given by Native Alaskans long ago). But it’s worth noting that this is not the first time this President has addressed the needs of Native Americans. There is a reason why Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker called President Obama the “best president ever for American Indians” and Chief James Allan, Coeur dAlene tribal chairman, said that he has “done more for [Native American] tribes than the last five presidents combined.”
Because Native Americans are so often the invisible minority in our political discussions, you may not have heard about the actions this administration has taken that led to those quotes. So perhaps it’s time to provide a brief overview.
In 2010, President Obama signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The United States was the last major country to do so.
Also in 2010, the President signed the Tribal Law and Order Act.
Last week, Congress took another important step to improve the lives of Native American women by passing the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. The Act includes a strong emphasis on decreasing violence against women in Native communities, and is one of many steps this Administration strongly supports to address the challenges faced by Native women.
In 2012, the Departments of Justice and Interior announced the settlement of 41 long-standing disputes with Indian tribal governments over the federal mismanagement of trust funds and resources for a total of $1.023 billion.
The Department of Justice has also been at the forefront of pushing for legislation that supports Native American voting rights.
The visit by the President and First Lady to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in June of 2013 obviously had a profound impact. During their time there, they met with six young people “who spoke of lives affected by homelessness, alcoholism, poverty and suicide.”
“I love these young people,” Obama said shortly after meeting them. “I only spent an hour with them. They feel like my own.”
The Obamas emerged from the private conversation at a school in Cannon Ball, N.D., “shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking,” Obama said.
The meeting spurred Obama to tell his administration to aggressively build on efforts to overhaul the Indian educational system and focus on improving conditions for Native American youths.
“It’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office,” Obama, speaking at the conference, said about speaking to his staff about the plight of the children he met. “I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job. It is not very often where I get choked up, so they knew I was serious about this.”
Just one of the products of that meeting was the first ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering where the administration announced the launch of Generation Indigenous. That all comes in addition to things like the announcement this week that the Department of Education has awarded more than $50.4 million in grants to support American Indian tribally controlled colleges and universities.
And so, it should come as no surprise that one of the first items on President Obama’s agenda when he landed in Alaska was a meeting with Native leaders.