Obama to visit Indian Country

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 14, 2013

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(Special to the Times – Alysa Landry)

TOP: President Barack Obama visits with the crowd after making his speech at the fifth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.

BOTTOM: President Barack Obama delivers his speech at the fifth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday promised tribal leaders that he will make his first trip as president to Indian Country next year, as part of a pledge to keep historic covenants forged between the federal government and tribal nations.

During the fifth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, Obama reminded tribal leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy, which was the foundation for the U.S. Constitution.

"The Iroquois called their network of alliances with other tribes and European nations a covenant chain," Obama said. "Each link represented a bond of peace and friendship."

The chain didn't sustain itself, however, the President said. He proposed four ways the government can keep its covenants with American Indians and fortify the chain: strengthen justice and tribal sovereignty; expand opportunity by creating jobs and growing Native economies; ensure everyone has equal access to affordable health care; and be good stewards of Native homelands.

"This is the foundation we can build on," Obama said. "This is the progress that we can make together."

Obama touted recent accomplishments that have addressed some of these covenants. The Cobell Settlement and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act demonstrate the administration's willingness to recognize tribal sovereignty, he said. The Affordable Care Act -- also known as ObamaCare -- addresses disparities in health insurance. Obama's Climate Action Plan, which he released in June, calls for partnerships with tribes so vulnerable lands can be identified and made more resilient.

Obama spoke to an audience of more than 300 tribal leaders -- the largest ever to gather for the annual conference. A record number of cabinet members, 13, also attended. Many of Obama's comments echoed what his cabinet members said during the conference, which served as a way for leaders in the federal government to showcase recent accomplishments.

But the conference also included time for tribal leaders to raise concerns and ask pointed questions of the White House Council on Native American Affairs. Council members convened on a stage in front of tribal leaders and the press and fielded questions about public safety, health care, historic disparities in resources and the shrinking federal budget.

During the session, Navajo President Ben Shelly pushed the council for greater support of the tribe's energy policy.

"We are ready," he said. "Our job is to create jobs and revenue."

Shelly also called for more local control of dollars and true tribal sovereignty, which is especially important given the size of the Navajo Nation and its multiple jurisdictions in three states. He asked the council to prioritize tribes during the last three years of Obama's term.

"The Obama administration is a hope to all American Indian tribes," Shelly said. "Let's take care of things."

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