President Obama Kept His Promises to Native Americans

We’ve all gotten used to presidential candidates making promises that they don’t/can’t keep when they get elected. But no group in American history has been on the receiving end of more broken promises than Native Americans. In the scheme of political campaigns, those issues aren’t usually on anyone’s radar. Perhaps that is why no one payed much attention when candidate Barack Obama made some promises to Native Americans back in 2008.

In that clip Obama said he would host an annual White House Tribal Nations Conference in order to give Native Americans a seat at the table, and he said this:

We’re going to end nearly a century of mismanagement of Indian trusts. We’re going to work together to settle unresolved cases, figure out how the trusts ought to operate, and ensure that they are begin managed responsibly.

This week the White House held its 8th and final Tribal Nations Conference, while the Attorney General and Secretary of the Interior made an historic announcement.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell today announced that, as a result of an initiative begun in the summer of this year, the United States has reached settlement with 17 additional tribal governments who alleged that the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury had mismanaged monetary assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribes. With these resolutions, the Obama Administration will have settled the vast majority of the outstanding claims, some dating back more than a century, with more than 100 tribes and totaling over $3.3 billion…

In April 2012, the Justice and Interior Departments announced more than $1 billion in settlements with 41 federally-recognized tribes for similar claims, the result of nearly two years of negotiations, between 2009 and the 2012 announcement, the Departments of Justice and of the Interior had settled with six other tribes. Since April 2012, the United States has reached settlement for claims of 57 additional tribes – including 17 reached after negotiations this summer and early fall – for an additional $1.9 billion, following through on its commitment to bring to an end, honorably and fairly, this protracted litigation that has burdened both the plaintiffs and the United States.

Ending these long-running disputes about the United States’ management of trust funds and non-monetary trust resources will allow the United States and the tribes to move beyond the distrust exacerbated by years of litigation. These settlement agreements represent a significant milestone in the improvement of the United States’ relationship with Indian tribes.

I have been following the Obama administration’s work with Native Americans pretty closely for a while now. There is a reason why – even back in 2012 – Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker called President Obama the “best president ever for American Indians.” But in a letter to the President, Lindsay Early captured it all on a much more personal level. She describes going to an Obama campaign rally in Dallas with a friend back in 2008.

At the rally, we met people of all ages, races, and creeds. Despite our different circumstances, we were all united by the common hope for change and better opportunities. When it was time for you to speak, the crowd grew quiet, anxious to hear your plans for this great country of ours. In the speech, you promised you would always do your best to represent all Americans. When you mentioned plans to represent African Americans, the crowd erupted. When you spoke about the importance of the Latino vote, the crowd once again let out a roaring cheer. Lastly, you mentioned that you would do your best to represent Native Americans. Two little voices screamed as loud as we could from the balcony. You answered back, “I hear you girls, and when I am elected, I won’t forget you!”

We were absolutely ecstatic. You see, President Obama, this was the first time we had ever heard any presidential candidate mention Native Americans. This was the first time any presidential candidate had made us feel that we mattered and our voices were important.

That was the promise that Lindsay heard. She now works for the Comanche Nation. Here’s what she wrote about how that promise has been kept.

I can visibly see and feel the differences in Indian Country in the seven years you have been in office, and for that I want to thank you.

You have managed to do for Native Americans what no president has done before, President Obama. You promised during that speech in Dallas that when you where in office, you wouldn’t forget about us. Thank you for keeping your promise!

As President Obama’s second term comes to a close, we’ll be hearing a lot about his legacy. There is nothing that will go on his list of achievements that will make me much prouder than the way he has kept that promise.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.