President Obama brings together largest gathering of tribal leaders

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 6, 2012

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(Special to the Times – Alysa Landry)

Navajo Nation vice-president Rex Lee Jim, left, and another tribal leader speak on Wednesday at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, DC.

P resident Barack Obama and members of his cabinet on Wednesday pledged continued support of Indian Country and asked for ongoing dialogue with tribal leaders.

Obama invited representatives from all 566 federal recognized tribes to his fourth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, keeping the promise he made in 2008 to meet regularly with American Indians and Alaska Natives to strengthen ties between tribal nations.

He is the only president to meet with tribal leaders all four years.

"Every year I look forward to this event," Obama said Wednesday afternoon as he addressed hundreds of his "friends" from the tribal nations, people who "inspire (him) every single day."

Obama began his remarks by paying tribute to his adopted Crow Nation father, Sonny Black Eagle, who died last month in Montana. He then urged tribal leaders to hold onto their values to "cherish the Earth and each other, to honor ancestors and preserve traditions."

"These should be, and are, American values," he said. "They lie at the heart of some of our country's greatest challenges: to rebuild the middle class, to build ladders of opportunity for everybody who's working hard, to protect our planet, to leave our children something better than we inherited, to make sure Americans remain optimistic about the future and that this country of ours remains a place that no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from or what your last name is, you can make it here if you try."

Obama's fourth tribal nations conference comes at a time when the nation as a whole is starting to pay more attention to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, 5.2 million people identified themselves as American Indian or Alaska Native.

That's a 27 percent jump from 2000, according to Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the Department of Commerce.

"Not only does that kind of information give us a better picture of who we are as Americans, but it opens people's eyes to the fact that the contributions from Indian Country are much more powerful than is often recognized," Blank said.

Held at the headquarters of the Department of the Interior, just blocks from the White House, the summit is one of few events that pull all the tribal leaders together in the same room.

Three years ago, it was the largest gathering of tribal leaders in the nation's history.

"Today, it's gotten routine," Obama said. "What I told you then is that I was committed to more than a unique nation-to-nation relationship – I was committed to getting this relationship right, so that your nations can be full partners in our economy and your children can have a fair shot at pursuing the American Dream, and that no one has to live under the cloud of fear or injustice."

The conference agenda included remarks from the secretaries of education, treasury, commerce, health and human services, agriculture, transportation, labor and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Speakers provided updates on progress during the last 12 months and throughout Obama's presidency. They also pledged to continue moving forward to battle problems unique to American Indians.

"I've seen firsthand the real challenges that Indian Country faces – devastatingly high rates of unemployment, crime, drug addiction, poor housing, lack of access to technology," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

He described his visits to some of the country's reservations as "emotionally wrenching."

Promising to help close the "opportunity gap," Duncan called on educators and tribal leaders to prioritize innovation in the classrooms and offer every student a "world-class education."

He specifically called attention to nine states whose graduation rates for American Indian students is less than 60 percent including Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

"Education is the surest, most powerful path for breaking the cycle of poverty on tribal lands," Duncan said. "In America, education must be that great equalizer, the one force that enables people to overcome differences of birth, of bank accounts, of power and privilege. We must prepare our students to preserve their proud heritage and vibrant cultures that shaped America's history for centuries."

Tribal leaders also met in smaller sessions Wednesday that were closed to the press. During those sessions, members of Obama's administration listened to the concerns of the tribal leaders.

The conference set the tone for what the administration promises will be four more years of conversation and progress.

"We have four more years," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "That means we can do a lot more. Our covenant to you is that we will do it hand in hand."

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