In November we first think of Thanksgiving, and as we Native Americans say, Thanksgiving is a time when we once again reflect upon all we have and the genocide it took to get it. Even in November, which is officially Native American Heritage Month, most Americans don't think about the massacres, land thefts, boarding school oppression and anti-native religion laws carried out against Native Americans throughout U.S. history and even right up to the present day. But this year on Nov. 5, President Barack Obama remembered!
This President has already shown that he may be the first president in a while who intends to keep his promises to Native Americans. Obama met with about 400 of the 564 federally recognized tribal nations and he was quoted as saying, "You will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House." It would be easy to become cynical and assume he will end up being just like all the rest of the politicians in our unique history of making empty promises or breaking treaties. But here are some reasons I'm holding out hope for a better outcome.
First of all, Obama has regularly exhibited a keen sense in understanding our particular native problems. He has recognized problems in education, with Indians having some of the lowest matriculation and highest dropout rates in the country; the high unemployment rate, about five times that of the national average; the gaps in Indian health care with illnesses like tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, pneumonia, and influenza at far higher rates than the rest of the population; and a host of other problems.
President Obama has already begun to "put his money where his mouth is," allocating more than $3 billion of the Recovery Act to help with some of Indian country's most pressing needs. That included over $100 million in loans to stimulate jobs in tribal economies, significant increases in funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service, and other agencies that play crucial roles in Indian communities. This is of note given the fact that these agencies were often the first to receive cuts under prior administrations.
Secondly, when Obama talks to Native American leaders he continually brings up the need for a long-term strategy and the need to make sure we have a voice at the table. To remedy the first concern, I hope he keeps pushing us. To remedy the latter concern, Obama has appointed Native American senior staffers in the White House. He had promised during the campaign that when important decisions are being made about Native Americans, we would be part of the process. To ensure this happens, Obama appointed Kimberly Teehee of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as his Native American policy advisor and Jodi Gillette of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as a direct liaison to the tribes. Also attorney Larry EchoHawk of the Pawnee Nation will serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior.
Thirdly, he took some action already. In recognition of the special relationship between native tribal nations and the U.S. that Obama wants to restore, he signed a memorandum pursuant to Executive Order 13175 of Nov. 6, 2000. This memo charged executive departments and agencies with engaging in regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration with tribal officials in the development of federal policies that have tribal implications. The memo also holds these groups responsible for strengthening the government-to-government relationship between the U.S. and Indian tribes. This acknowledgment of a renewal of the special relationship is good news to Indians.
There are a couple of other minor things worth noticing as well. Candidate Obama spent a surprising amount of time in Indian country. Politicians know time on the reservation is not the best use of their time, but Obama made it to many small, impoverished, community meetings in gymnasiums at various reservations. This was genuinely appreciated and when visiting the Crow Reservation in Montana, he was even adopted into a Crow family, a fact the president has mentioned on several occasions and accepts with the sincerity and dignity afforded the Indian adoption process.
The end result of Obama's Indian policy is yet to be determined. He is off to a good start. There are many crucial issues facing Native Americans that would allow the president to have a major impact. For instance, he could force a fast and fair settlement of the 12-year ongoing class action suit over billions owed to Native tribes for misuse of tribal trust land funds in Cobell vs. Salazar. He could free the political prisoner Leonard Peltier. He could investigate the many environmental concerns as more corporations are illegally using Indian land as toxic and nuclear waste dumping grounds. And he could accompany some of this long overdue action with the Brownback/Dorgan Native American Apology Resolution. All this, and more, in time, we hope. Obama -- do remember us beyond November.
Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee Indian descendant and the author of Living in Color: Embracing God's Passion for Ethnic Diversity. He teaches history, theology, and culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon.