President Barack Obama made his first trip as president to Indian Country on Friday, pledging to partner with Native American tribes “on just about every issue that touches your lives.”
The visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation – the one-time home of Chief Sitting Bull – was the first by a U.S. president to an Indian reservation since 1999 and was said to be only the fourth such visit by a U.S. president in history.
“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved,” Obama said of Indian Country. “I promised when I ran to be a president who’d change that.”
Obama, who became an honorary member of the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana while campaigning for president in May 2008, said the visit had “special meaning” to him, and he tried a few words in Lakota as the audience laughed.
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“I can’t guarantee it’s going to come out perfect,” he said. “I’m going to practice and I’m going to be even better next time.”
First lady Michelle Obama accompanied Obama on the visit. They arrived at the tribal nation’s annual powwow to cheers, songs and a display of American flags and dancers in traditional dress. They sat in the front row to watch the dancers with Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault II, who wore a headdress and welcomed Obama to the event, noting the “many great deeds he has accomplished” for Indian tribes.
Sitting Bull, Archambault said, once asked the government in Washington to send him an honest man.
“If Sitting Bull were sitting here today, he’d be honored,” Archambault said.
Indeed, Archambault said that no other president has come close to Obama in commitment to Indian Country.
“I hope this sets a precedent,” he added. He and others presented the Obamas with a quilt and a shawl, which the first lady placed over her shoulders.
Obama, unlike any president before him, has met with tribal leaders every single year of his term. His administration in its first term settled a 13-year-old lawsuit over hundreds of thousands of land trust accounts. The administration last year established the White House Council on Native American Affairs to ensure coordination with Indian Country.
Before Obama arrived, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced plans to overhaul the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education. The changes will redesign the bureau from a direct provider of education “into an innovative organization that will serve as a capacity builder and service provider to tribes,” Jewell said.
The bureau-funded schools are some of the lowest performing schools in the country, Jewell said.
Obama said his administration has made “major investments” to help tribes, including roads, high-speed Internet and energy. And he included a plug for his health care initiative, noting that “Native Americans, like all Americans, now have access to quality, affordable health care.”
Obama and the first lady met with a group of Native American youth before the ceremony and Obama said he was committed to improving Indian schools.
“There’s no denying that for some Americans the deck has been stacked against them, sometimes for generations,” Obama said. “But we can break old cycles. We’ve got to invest in them and believe in them and love them, and that starts from the White House all the way down here.”
After the visit, the Obamas were off to Palm Springs, Calif., where they were to spend the weekend. Obama will attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Saturday morning before delivering the commencement address at the University of California, Irvine, marking the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the UC Irvine campus by President Lyndon B. Johnson.