Convening a conference with 386 federally recognized tribal nations, President Obama today assured the Native American community that "you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House.”
"I get it. I'm on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider,"The president said recalling that he grew up in Hawaii raised by his grandparents and didn't have a lot of money, "so even though our experiences are different, I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in.”
The President admitted that many in the Native American community would be skeptical about this outreach yet promised that his administration would be different.
"I know you've heard this song from Washington before. I know you've often heard grand promises that sound good but rarely materialize. And each time you're told, ‘This time will be different,'"Mr. Obama said. "I want to be clear about this: Today's summit is not lip service. We're not going to go through the motions and pay tribute to one another and then furl up the flags and go our separate ways. Today's sessions are part of a lasting conversation that's crucial to our shared future.”
Mr. Obama's remarks came at the opening session of the day-long conference at the Department of the Interior. Senior administration members will sit down in breakout sessions with tribes throughout the day to hear their concerns. The President will make closing remarks at the end of the day today.
The statistics on Indian reservations are staggering: 80% unemployment rates in some areas, ¼ of all native Americans living in poverty, 14% of all reservations homes don't have electricity, and 12% don't have access to safe water supply.
"Without real communication and consultation, we're stuck, year after year, with policies that don't work on issues specific to you and on broader issues that affect all of us. And you deserve to have a voice in both,"the President said.
Part of the strategy, the President said, to bring help to reservations will be through health care, noting that more than half of all Native Americans and Alaska Natives, especially those in remote areas with limited access to care, rely on the Indian Health Service for their most basic needs.
"That's why we invested $500 million in the Recovery Act in strengthening and modernizing the IHS. And that's why my budget proposes an increase of 13 percent in IHS funding. We're also closer than ever to passing health insurance reform that will finally make quality insurance affordable to all Americans who don't have coverage, and finally offer stability and security to Americans who do, and that includes our first Americans.”
The President also touted the $170 million for Indian education and the $277 million for Indian school construction within the Recovery Act.
Last summer while campaigning throughout Montana then-Senator Obama visited the Crow reservation. While there he was adopted into the Crow Nation by Mary and Sunny Black Eagle, both of whom were at the summit today.
Mr. Obama joked today, "I know what they're saying now: Kids grow up so fast. Only in America could the adopted son of Crow Indians grow up to be the president of the United States.”
And already the president showed he's thinking about the road ahead. During the question and answer session with the leaders, Mr. Obama said he would be helping them for the next eight years, well make that three years and one month instead.
"For the next eight years — next four years at least — let me now jump the gun. For the next three years and one month that I'm assured of this current position, we are going to make sure that we put the infrastructure and the framework in place so that a new dynamic, a new set of relationships have been established.”
-Yunji de Nies and Sunlen Miller