WASHINGTON — Speaking to 500 people representing 320 tribes, President Barack Obama pledged last month that he wouldn’t forget his campaign trail promise to give native communities a greater voice in the White House.
“I said that so long as I held this office, never again would Native Americans be forgotten or ignored,” he said. “And over the past two years, my administration, working hand in hand with many of you, has strived to keep that promise.”
For the most part, tribal leaders say the president has been true to his word. And they’ve been watching, intent on holding accountable the president that many of them helped elect, said Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. They took careful notes during the president’s first Tribal Nations conference in 2009; at Obama’s second summit last month, they checked to see what goals had been met in the first year as well as what remains undone.
“There is this feeling that there is traction, that we’re having a true dialogue,” Johnson Pata said. “We’re not saying, ‘Check the box, you totally won.’ We’re saying we’ve got a great foundation, and now we’ve got to build upon that.”
Some of the work has been symbolic — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar early in the administration restored the historic painting “Navajos Breaking Camp” in his office, after it had been mothballed during the Bush administration, for example.
But other accomplishments have had more tangible and far-reaching effects on thousands of people, including the settlement of the long-simmering Cobell lawsuit, which compensates thousands of Native Americans whose land was mismanaged while held in trust by the federal government.
There’s the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act, which strengthens law enforcement in Indian Country. There’s the inclusion of Indian Health Service in the landmark health care law, and the $3.2 billion in stimulus spending, which went to schools, roads on tribal lands and technology upgrades in some of the poorest and most remote corners of the nation.
Now though, everyone in Indian Country is watching to see what happens next, as some of the glow wears off the early victories and the Obama administration must now turn to the hard slog of getting things done.
Some in Indian Country are skeptical — they’ve seen too many promises made and broken before, said John Poupart, president of the American Indian Policy Center in St. Paul, Minn. Also, some of the work the administration touts, such as the Cobell settlement and the Tribal Law and Order, has been in progress for years, he said, calling it “maintenance work” that the Obama administration merely completed.