WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2009 -- President Obama is scheduled to make good today on his campaign promise to host a White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Leaders from 564federally recognized tribes are expected to come to the Department of the Interior for an all-day forum, where they will meet directly with the president and representatives from the administration. The president is scheduled to deliver opening remarks in the morning and closing remarks in the afternoon.
During the day, four discussions led by senior administration officials are planned. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are among the administration officials who will lead the group discussions.
The groups and tribal leaders are expected discuss areas of economic development and national resources, public safety and housing, education and health and labor.
"I look forward to hearing directly from the leaders in Indian Country about what my administration can do to not only meet their needs, but help improve their lives and the lives of their peoples," Obama said in a statement. "This conference will serve as part of the ongoing and important consultation process that I value, and further strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship."
On the presidential campaign trail, Obama vowed to appoint an American Indian policy adviser to his senior White House staff to work with tribes and host an annual summit at the White House with tribal leaders.
He fulfilled the first promise in July, naming Kimberly Teehee as senior policy adviser for Native American affairs and a member of his Domestic Policy Council.
The national conference scheduled for today, fulfilling the second promise, would be the first for Native Americans since President Bill Clinton hosted a summit in 1994.
"Few have been ignored in Washington as long as Native Americans, the first Americans," Obama said last year while campaigning in Butte, Mont. "Too often, Washington has paid lip service to working with tribes while taking a one-size-fits approach to tribal communities across the nation. That will change when I am president of the United States."
Obama promised then that he would extend the reach of opportunity and have "government-to-government relationships" to work with and address the challenges to Native American leaders, "to make sure they have a strong voice in the Obama administration -- generation after generation."
The White House says that a conversation with Native American leaders began early-on in the administration and that the summit today will be chance to continue the dialogue.
"From the beginning, we've had a good relationship with the tribal governments and this is really a chance for the lenders to interact directly with the president and folks from the highest levels of government," White House spokesman Shin Inouye said. "It's safe to say the outreach has been ongoing and will continue with tribal leaders."
Barack Black Eagle
The event will be a family reunion of sorts for the president, who is also known as Barack Black Eagle.
During his first presidential campaign stop at an Indian reservation in 2008, Obama was adopted as an honorary member of a Crow family and given a new name and new parents.
Obama was given the honorary name Awe Kooda bilaxpak Kuuxshish, which means, "one who helps people throughout the land."
His adopted parents were Sunny and Mary Black Eagle, who appeared with him on stage during a campaign rally in May 2008.
"I like my new name, Barack Black Eagle. I mean that's a good name," Obama said then.
His adopted Crow nation parents are expected to be among the representatives coming to the Tribal Nations summit today.
The Black Eagle family are scheduled to perform the protecting and blessing ceremony, which involves activating the "spirit of the almighty to protect the president and also bless his spirit to make sound and good judgments."
The president has said that as an honorary family member, he takes his commitment seriously to Native Americans.
"I want you to know that I will never forget you," Obama said in Montana last May. "You will be on my mind every day that I'm in the White House. We will never be able, we will never be able to undo the wrongs that were committed against Native Americans, but what we can do is make sure that we have a president who's committed to doing what's right with Native Americans, being a full partner, respecting, honoring, working with you.
"That's the commitment that I'm making to you and since now I'm a member of the family, you know that I won't break my commitment," he said.
The president has often equated his feeling of being an outsider to that of the struggle of many Native Americans.
"I was growing up in Hawaii at the time and where I was growing up, there weren't a lot of black families, and so sometimes I was looked at as sort of an outsider and so I know what it's like to be on the outside," he said.
"I know what it's like to not always have been respected or to have been ignored and I know what it's like to struggle and that's how I think many of you understand what's happened here on the reservation, that a lot of times you have been forgotten just like African-Americans have been forgotten or other groups in this country have been forgotten and because I have that experience," he said.
Of top concern to many tribal leaders at the conference will be health care, housing and the high unemployment rate on reservations. The unemployment rate for Native Americans is generally believed to be at least two times the national unemployment rate.
During the campaign, Obama said one of his priorities would be increasing health funding for reservations.
"The health care on Indian reservations is terrible, and it's been consistently underfunded," said last year. "I have been a sponsor and a champion of drastically increasing health funding for the reservations and it passed the Senate, but it hasn't yet passed the House. When I'm president, I'm going to make this a priority and we're gonna make sure that bill passes."
In addition, Obama said another priority would be to address the huge problem of housing on reservations.
According to the White House, large investments have already been made into both these campaign promises: $3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has gone to reservations, and $17 billion from the fiscal year 2010 budget will go to programs with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Services.
But American Indian leaders say still more needs to be done and more money is needed on reservations, which face high unemployment, low rates of insurance and often poor quality health care.
"We are lacking the funding in health care resources," Arlo Daees from Crow Nation in Montana said. "People are literally waiting in line. We are lacking the proper resources and lives are threatened. There is no money to fund this."
Daees, who is chief-of-staff to the Chairman of the Crow Nation where Obama spent time during the campaign, said he hopes the conference today will provide a jumping-off point for more progress on this issue.
He said that many people on his reservation, himself included, cannot afford health insurance or get the care they need in the respects of their cultural and religious traditions
Still, Daees said this administration already has done more than administrations past. The chairman of their reservation has held about 10 meetings with White House representatives this year, including three with the president himself, and will attend the conference today, Daees said.
"The Bushes were more appeasing to the corporate world," Daees said. "I believe this president is more sensitive to our needs."