When President Barack Obama touches down Friday on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota, he’ll likely find the curious paradox of life in Indian Country. America’s reservations are at once heartbreaking and hopeful, with the former more often than not overshadowing the latter.
Obama is set to become just the fourth sitting American president to visit an Indian reservation. Calvin Coolidge traveled to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation in 1927, three years after he signed the Indian Citizenship Act that granted some Indians American citizenship. Franklin Roosevelt visited North Carolina’s Cherokee Nation in 1936. And in 1999, Bill Clinton also visited Pine Ridge, a little more than a century after U.S. soldiers massacred hundreds of Lakota men, women and children there at Wounded Knee.
The White House says Obama’s return trip to Indian Country will include meeting with young people, and that the president will focus his speech to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on job creation, education and his administration’s commitment to “upholding our strong and crucial nation-to-nation relationship.”
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama also plan on attending the reservation’s annual Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration, which honors Native American veterans.
For some on Standing Rock, the president’s trip is a source of excitement and long overdue acknowledgement.
The last time Obama visited Indian country, as a candidate in 2008, he was welcomed with pounding drums and cheers. “Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans – the first Americans,” Obama told the crowd that day, vowing to improve the health care and educational opportunities of American Indians. The Crow adopted Obama into the nation and into the Black Eagle family, giving him the name Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish or “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”
“It’s just encouraging as heck to have a visit like this,” said David Archambault Sr., a longtime educator from the Standing Rock reservation and father of the tribe’s chairman. “What the president has done is like night and day. Our history shows that it’s as if no one has any compassion for us. We are here and we have resources and throughout history people have wanted to take them from us. And for the first time we have someone looking out for us.”
Like so many other reservations across the country, Standing Rock suffers myriad social, economic and educational issues. The unemployment rate is 79%. There is little economy to speak of. Childhood mortality, suicide and dropout rates are among the highest in the nation.
Scott Davis, the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said that beyond the excitement of a rare presidential visit, he hopes to hear Obama articulate policy initiatives that could bolster the lives of folks on the reservation.
“One thing I’ve looked at recently is the president’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. I watched that air months ago and seeing him with a group of African-American gentlemen and I thought, something’s missing from that piece,” Davis said. “Because it’s addressing men of color, what’s missing is Native American men, because we have pretty much the same issues as African-American men.”
Either way, Davis said, he applauds the president’s efforts on building bridges with tribes and on Native American policy.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, will join the president and first lady during their visit.
Heitkamp said she hopes the president’s visit will highlight the rich culture and history of the Lakota Sioux people, but also the tribe’s often invisible suffering.
“Native Americans were not given citizenship until the 20th Century and were only allowed to be able to vote if they renounced their tribal citizenship,” said Heitkamp. “That doesn’t get talked about a lot. For so many years they weren’t even considered American citizens and they’ve been invisible.”
For the better part of three decades since Heitkamp served as the state’s attorney general, she said she has worked as an advocate for Native Americans. She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2013 and her first bill was aimed at creating a Commission on Native Children to study the issues disproportionately facing native children, including high rates of poverty, child abuse and suicide. Last month, the bill was passed unanimously in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and moved one step closer to going before the Senate for a vote. She also introduced legislation to help preserve Native American languages and culture.
The Obama administration has focused aggressively on American Indian issues, which stands somewhat in contrast to the long and mostly poor relations between the United States government and this land’s original people, who bore the brunt of broken treatises and land thefts amid our nation’s sometimes ruthless expansion.
Obama has hosted an annual Tribal Nations Conference at the White House and used executive order to launch the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education as well as other first-of-its kind initiatives aimed at native people.
With childhood obesity rampant in Indian communities, the administration launched “Let’s Move in Indian Country” in 2011, a branch of Michelle Obama’s national campaign against childhood obesity.
President Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act in August 2010 to extend the resources and reach of tribal law enforcement organizations. He also reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act in March 2013, with specific provisions that allow tribal criminal justice systems to prosecute non-Indians who sexually assault American Indian women. In 86% of reported sexual assaults of Native American women, non-natives were the accused attackers, according to the Justice Department.
Obama also signed changes to the Stafford Act in August 2013 to let tribes directly request disaster assistance. He has said that he fought hard to pass the Affordable Care Act because it permanently reauthorized the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, which offers beleaguered tribes wider access to quality health care.
“You’ll often hear this idea of forgotten Americans and the idea of being neglected and that Native American issues just don’t rise to the surface,"said Carole Barrett, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Mary in Bismark, N.D. "This idea of finally getting attention, it might just be a momentary spotlight, but I do think President Obama has more in-depth awareness of Indian issues. He can at least speak to that. Not too many other presidents have and I don’t think he needs a speechwriter to do that.”
Tribal members and politicians have been scrambling to get their hands on tickets to Friday's event, and even Dave Archambault Sr. and his wife, the parents of the tribe’s leader, weren’t sure if they’d be able to get tickets. Only 1,500 tickets were being made available, he said.
“I was planning to go golfing that day,” Archambault Sr. said. “You know, we didn’t want to bother my son. Tribal members want to go. Members of other tribes are looking for tickets. All of the officials want to be there, too. The pressure is great.”
Helen Hanley, who was answering the phone at Scott Davis’s office on Thursday afternoon, said the feeling running through folks was deeper than excitement.
“Our tribe is a very humble people so I don’t believe that they would see the president coming as anything really elaborate,” she said. “I believe that they would just think that somebody actually cares.”