To Form a More Perfect Union: Tribal nations and the United States meet at summit

By Lise Balk King
The Native Voice
Special to


WASHINGTON, DC — They have come by horse, train, car and bus, wagons and airplanes. They have swallowed pride and accepted harsh realities…and in the name of the very survival of their people, some have even walked countless miles, with families left behind for months and years…in the pursuit of petitioning the Great White Father in the Great White House.

The history of Indian tribal leaders taking their concerns to the President goes back all the way to George Washington. It covers virtually every administration since the founding fathers pledged to “form a more perfect union.” Presidents have also petitioned tribes, through delegations and treaties, to address the wishes and concerns of the federal government in the name of Manifest Destiny and the best interests of Americans.

So it is not without precedence that Obama has scheduled a White House Tribal Nations Conference with leaders invited from all 564 federally recognized tribes November 5 at the Department of the Interior. President Bill Clinton hosted the first such meeting at the White House in 1994. It is, however, without equal in its potential for progress in US-tribal relations and affairs.

In reality, US-tribal relations were founded in genocide, stoked by warfare, crippled by broken treaties, and almost severed by the Termination policies of the 1950s. There is also precedence, therefore, for Indians’ deep lack of trust in the promises made by presidents and their representatives.

But this historic event is less of a petitioning as it is a meeting at a common point in the road.

Tribes are ready to flex their newly developed political muscles, largely created during the Clinton Administration, honed during the lean Bush years, and proven during elections from 2002 forward. As Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) said in a senate re-election campaign interview with The Native Voice in 2002, “There are two things politicians care about, that’s money and votes. (South Dakota’s tribes) may not have a lot of money, but they do have a lot of votes.” And he was right, as he now famously proved through his stunning last-precinct-counted upset over challenger John Thune (R), winning by 524 votes from Shannon County, in the heart of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Since then, Native people have proven their clout around the country through the Get Out the Native Vote movement, tipping elections in their favor, one precinct at a time.

And tribes have continued to develop their political savvy and reach by promoting candidates based on their positions on Native issues, forming strategic partnerships with other political organizations, and using their economic success to make campaign contributions and lobbying a much bigger part of their political repertoire.

Barack Obama the candidate was the first presidential nominee to include Native Americans in his campaign strategy. With the guidance of his close advisor, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), Obama worked to become versed in the full range of Native issues and address their concerns as part of his campaign platform. He met with tribal leaders when in areas of large Native populations, earned a reputation of listening to their concerns, and made promises that had heretofore never been heard during a presidential stump speech: “The bond that I would like to create between an Obama administration and the Nations all across this country, the government to government relationship that is so critical, is going to be a top priority during my administration…” (May 19, 2008, Crow Agency, MT)

From all indications, the Obama administration is prepared to work with tribes at a new level of cooperative partnership, finally putting to rest the antiquated and disrespectful notion of the federal government as the necessary parent to their good-hearted but ill-equipped Indian children.

Obama’s tribal meeting is a therefore a convergence of cultures and intentions, unprecedented in this long and tumultuous history.

While this White House Tribal Nations Conference has captured the attention of Indian Country, and spurred the hopes and dreams for a new generation, it has also rekindled memories of broken promises and unresolved pain. There are countless ghosts of brutal injustices visited upon this nation’s First Peoples.

Some Native people are understandably cynical, expecting more of the same lock-step lip service of past Administrations. And some are riveted by the possibility that this could truly be a sign of significant change – a new era of respect, healing and partnership with the United States government.

Leaders and tribal members alike went to the voting booths last November to overwhelmingly support Barack Obama, and what they expect now is for him to make good on campaign promises: to resolve past injustices, fix what’s broken with regard to Indian policy and trust funds, pay attention to their current issues, honor treaty obligations and adequately fund their programs, engage in meaningful consultation, and guarantee that tribes will be respected as sovereign nations for the coming generations.



After four years of study and research at Harvard University, Lise re-entered the workforce with her new multi-media production and consulting company, A Measure of Light. She received her Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2011, where she focused on leadership development and social entrepreneurship, and then spent three years as a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Her post-graduate studies included a year of documentary film (sensory ethnography) at Harvard Visual and Environmental Studies.

Lise is Co-Producer of the newly released HBO Documentary Film, Heroin: Cape Cod, USA, directed by Oscar-winner Steven Okazaki.

Lise has over twenty years of experience in media and communications, specializing in their applications as tools for political advocacy, education and social change. Her work has spanned the roles of filmmaker, publisher, advocate, consultant, event organizer, writer, editor and photographer.

Ms. King’s work first used major media and corporate engagement for mainstream advocacy and education, with a focus on environmental issues and social justice. After completing work as Associate Producer on MTV’s first major documentary project, DECADE, which won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, she initiated and co-produced a short series of environmental action pieces for MTV News.

Other clients have included IBM, the Sociodade Culturale Arte Brasil for NHK Japan, Warner Brothers/ABC TV, ECO (the Earth Communications Office), Friends of Animals International (with NBC), and Body Glove surf gear for a national theatrically-released Earth Day campaign.

Lise relocated to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1992, where her focus shifted to indigenous human and civil rights, political and social advocacy, community education and economic development. She transitioned into independent media and grass roots education. She co-founded Native Voice Media, The Native Voice, an independent national Native American newspaper, and The Native Voice Film Festival.The Native Voice is best known nationally for its Get Out The Native Vote work, and was credited by Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) as being instrumental in his successful re-election campaign in 2002. In 2004, The Native Voice created the first national GOTV product specifically created for Native American voters. The Native Voice worked to engage Native voters in policy debates, helped recruit Indians to run for public office, and developed special editions for mass distribution at the 2004 and 2008 elections. Ms. King also served intermittently as traveling press on the Obama presidential campaign.

Ms. King has two children, ages 14 and 22, who are enrolled members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. As a non-native with decades of experience living and working in Indian Country, Ms. King has become known as a “bridge-builder,” providing leadership in cross-cultural communication and advocacy.

Ms. King has worked on projects for a number of non-profit organizations, tribes, governments and businesses, including the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, South Dakota Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s Native American Advocacy Project, Houghton Mifflin Publishing, the Grameen Foundation, the National Indian Gaming Association, the Bureau of Indian Education, the South Dakota Governor’s Office, SD Public Television, and the National Congress of American Indians.

The Native Vote and The New Empowerment

The Native Vote experience is a fairly new, post-modern phenomenon. And while it does reflect a certain growing savvy and sophistication in Indian country, it also belies a much deeper and more profound collective loss. It is the loss of an inward-focused insulated and vibrant traditional culture, fed by the land and the sun and the seasons, wholly self-contained and not wanting for western material society. Yes, this loss began with the Indian Wars, and it has been cumulative and historic.

But the changes have also been sudden, with the loss of culture, language and the practice of traditions in these past two decades. We have witnessed and experienced the shift from a thriving “reservation culture.” with many touchstones of the older, pre-reservation lifestyles and cultural values still intact, to a newer, post-modern way of reservation life. Most of the elders who remembered the early reservation days are gone now. And with them left the simpler times and a comparatively quiet and constant existence.

Media growth and the Internet have brought desperately needed emotional and mental freedoms. They have connected formerly isolated people, surrounded by racist border towns, to the greater world collective experience. They have facilitated the breaking down of old-school redneck strangleholds, and the suffocating feeling that racism is inevitable.

However, the interest in greater society has had its sacrificial lambs. As the elders go, so go the fluent speakers and the old practices. In their place, however, a new form of Native culture is emerging – a youth-based, pop culture version encompassing hip hop empowerment. It includes the pseudo-glamour of gangster lifestyle, the power of easy violence and the flash of media savvy.

It is a strange and bi-polar merging. This new Native wave includes the most modern virtual realities, as the new generation fully embraces media, the Internet and new technologies – while also reaching back and bending down to grab handfuls of Earth and owning their own land-based traditions.

The newest form of empowerment includes it all. Unlike the older generations who have rejected the abilities to have and embrace both realities, the new heartbeat of Indian country finds life in both, necessarily needing them to solidify their new-found foot hold in the global technology-based community, while striving to maintain some critical sense of who they are against this backdrop of a new world experience.

It’s been done before, especially in Indian country, as generations have had to figure out how to negotiate their changing world and survive, but this time is significant in its difference. This generation seeks to empower itself with political grit outside it’s own tribes, it’s own communities, by learning the tools to push the wheels of power to the places they want to go.

Instead of being constantly reactionary, this is about planning, picking up the new weapons of a cyber age and playing a calculated game to take back their power.

The Native Note is one example of this new efficiency. Where past generations rejected participation in the political systems of the greater society because it was “selling out” to the “Feds,” the younger generations are gaining an understanding that participation is a way to make their collective voices heard by those people who do make decisions affecting their lives and the health of their communities, their tribes.

In a perfect and perhaps future reality, Indian people will be truly sovereign, independent, in spirit and reality from the United States government. But in the mean time, exercising the right to choose someone to lead – and casting that vote – is one way to step firmly in the soft earth and walk toward that empowered Native reality.

Brazil faces ongoing protest of Belo Monte Dam at UNPFII, actress Sigourney Weaver joins fray



UNITED NATIONS, New York City – A side event at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues turned into confrontation on Wednesday as a panel discussing the effects of hydroelectric dams on indigenous populations was met with terse responses from the governments of Brazil and Peru. The heated exchanges took place shortly before a planned protest march from the UN to the Brazilian Mission, where actress Sigourney Weaver lent her celebrity power to efforts by indigenous groups to stop Brazil’s Belo Monte dam.

The side event panel, led by Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, presented evidence of dam-induced destruction of ecosystems and indigenous populations around the globe. Routinely touted as “clean energy” by pro-hydroelectric interests, Goldtooth explained that dams wash out fragile river ecosystems and displace surrounding communities, heavily impacting lifeways and livelihoods.

One of the areas discussed in detail was the Xingu River region of Brazil, where local indigenous people are fighting the proposed Belo Monte dam. If built, this hydro-electric project will be the third-largest in the world, behind the Three Gorges Dam in China and the Itaipu Dam, Brazil-Paraguay. First proposed in 1990, Belo Monte has been fraught with controversy and protest. On April 20, the Brazilian government moved the project significantly forward, awarding the building rights to Norte Energia, a consortium of nine companies led by Chesf, a subsidiary of Electrobras, Latin America’s largest power utility company.

Immediately following the UN panel presentation, the Minister of the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations, Maria Teresa Mesquita Pessoa, responded by saying the information given was “two years old” and did not “accurately reflect the consultations” that had taken place with local indigenous people. Speaking in clear English, Pessoa resolutely defended the merits of the Belo Monte dam project. A representative of the Peruvian Mission to the United Nations requested to speak next, and defended his country’s position on hydro-electricity projects as well. IEN’s Tom Goldtooth later noted that it was unusual for governments to officially respond in such a manner during side events at the Forum.

Following the side event, a group of indigenous leaders representing dam-impacted communities from around the world gathered in a planned protest in front of the United Nations. The group of about 50 people marched to the Brazilian Mission to the United Nations. Walking slowly, they attracted attention and support from passing pedestrians and motorists as they chanted “No dams on sacred lands” and “Respect indigenous rights.” Participants carried placards in English, Spanish and Portuguese and a large black banner with the words, “Stop Dams in Amazon.”

Actress Sigourney Weaver, most recently known for playing botanist Dr. Grace Augustine in the movie Avatar, joined the protest at the Brazilian Mission. Post-Avatar, Weaver has traveled with Director James Cameron to the Xingu region of Brazil, and has met with local tribes and government officials in an effort to support the indigenous people of the region and stop the Belo Monte Dam.

When asked why she felt it was important to lend her celebrity status to the survival of indigenous people, Weaver said, “These people clearly feel they have not been part of this (development) process, that they are not being considered, and that their whole way of life would be wiped out…I had this amazing opportunity to travel down and meet all these tribal leaders and sit with the women in the circle and sing the songs and share food with them. And I think it carries with it a responsibility. I want to help get their message out.”

When asked how she felt this related to the experience of being from the United States, Weaver said, “It breaks my heart to see Brazil have the opportunity to do things differently and not take advantage of it. What I felt listening to the tribal leaders (in Brazil) is that we have not listened to our tribal leaders here in the U.S. and it has caused such a rift…Brazil has the opportunity to learn from mistakes that other countries have made and support the ancient way of life of the indigenous people.” Unfortunately in America, we know what happens when people aren’t heard and aren’t included. You can’t go back, you can’t undo the damage done to the original homelands and the original way of life.

Weaver continued, “Dams are a nineteenth Century model. In the US we are dismantling our dams, it’s been a disaster for the environment…We say to Brazil, and other countries, ‘You don’t have to make the same mistakes that we’ve made. You can move toward renewable energy.’”


An Overview of Indian Education (written for the Bureau of Indian Education, Safe Schools Summit, Dec. 8, 2009, Washington, DC)

Torlino_Before-After_PortraitsHistorical Overview of Indian Education

The beginning

Indian Education began early in the history of the United States. As a concept, the efforts to educate were rooted in the attempts to move the Indian from a foreign adversary to a participant in the building of a new nation. As a reality, Indian education by the federal government necessarily had to be an assimilating force, as the Western way of life was so completely foreign to all tribes living in what is now America. Existing cultures were sacrificed in the name of nation building and peace-making.

Education was a bargaining point in many treaties signed by the federal government, and thus the value of education was recognized and understood. The role and quality of that education, however, was always shaped by the current relationship of the United States government to tribes, and the shifting philosophies of the role of the federal government in relationship to Indian people.

The beginnings of a formalized method of “Indian Education,” with any identifiable consistency, took place during early Westward expansion in the nineteenth century. These earliest efforts were carried out by Christian missionaries with the inferred consent of the federal government. Both Catholic and Protestant churches were represented, and which group gained entry into a particular Indian territory was largely guided by which European nation had made first contact and established relationships within that tribe, establishing trade and learning the customs and language. The English brought Protestantism with them, the French and Spanish, Catholicism.

There are very rich and detailed first–hand accounts of missionaries working to create Indian schools in the territories, and while their intent was to offer some semblance of Western education, primary motivation was clearly to “save souls” and bring the “wild and heathen” natives to salvation. A great push was made to raise the funds necessary to support these efforts, and it became an ongoing “good work” of parishioners in Europe and established American cities to tithe funds for the salvation and education of Indian children.

The Boarding School Era

The first dramatic shift in the federal government’s laissez-faire approach to educating Indians was brought about by Army Captain Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian School at an abandoned military post in Pennsylvania on November 1, 1878. His model for training prisoner–students became the basis for the Off-Reservation Indian boarding school.

Famous for the phrase, “Kill the Indian and save the man,” Pratt intended to prove that Indians could be taught Western European ways and therefore be made into citizens rather than die at the noose or the firing squad. In a closely watched “experiment,” he employed military tactics of discipline, isolation and repetition to “re-educate” Indians.  His work was considered to be a success, and Pratt’s methods became the early model for Indian boarding schools nationwide.

Pratt was a veteran of the Indian Wars, and therefore had extensive exposure to Indian people, mostly as prisoners. In 1875, Pratt was in charge of 72 Apache prisoners at Ft. Marion near St. Augustine, Florida, and he made a concerted effort to teach these men how to “elevate” themselves by learning the white European way of life. When the prisoners were released, in 1878, Pratt was successful in convincing 22 of them to continue their education. Records indicate that several of them went to The Hampton Institute, a school for freed slaves in Virginia.

With this “success” in hand, Pratt was allowed to resign his Army commission and continue to develop his ideas on Indian education, which were considered liberal at the time. He advocated this re-conditioning policy to the US Secretary of War, who then allowed him to establish the Carlisle Industrial Training School, the first co-educational, multi-tribal Indian boarding school.

The General Allotment Act of 1887, commonly known as the Dawes Act, incorporated the Carlisle model into government policy.

Thomas Jefferson Morgan was appointed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1889 with his support of the Dawes Act and the educational policies set forth therein. During his appointment acceptance, he announced:

“When we speak of education of the Indians, we mean that comprehensive system of training and instruction which will convert them into American citizens, put within their reach the blessings which the rest of us enjoy, and enable them to compete successfully with the white man on his own ground and with his own methods.” He later wrote, “We must either fight the Indians, feed them, or else educate them. To fight them is cruel, to feed them is wasteful, while to educate them is humane, economic, and Christian.”

In 1890, the federal government published their Indian education policies in “Rules for Indian Schools.” It states the overall objective of Indian education to be “preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life.”

By 1902 there were twenty-five federally funded non-reservation boarding schools in fifteen states and territories modeled after the Carlisle’s military methods. Total enrollment was over 6,000 students. Attendance at boarding schools was mandatory in some areas, and children as young as age three were taken from families and placed in boarding facilities for education and assimilation into mainstream Euro-American society.

While Pratt had good intentions of saving Indians from slaughter by creating a reform system, what ensued during the Boarding School Era was a painful tug-of-war between Indian people and the federal government. Sacrificing family and cultural ties for assimilation and education was coldly dealt out as a means to provide long-term survival for native people.

However, for those families whose children were forcibly removed, it seemed an unreasonable sacrifice. For many of the children who attended the boarding schools – which were developed under a policy founded in military conditions for adult prisoners – the reality of the transition from home to school was especially cruel.

These boarding school children went from the warmth of family life and familiar culture and language to the sterile and disciplined environment of a militarized boarding school, where they were expected to learn a new language, adopt a new way of life, and leave behind all traces of their familiar culture. In order to make the new training “stick,” many children were not allowed to see their families for years at a time, and when they did return home, were unable to fit back into life as they once knew it, sometimes loosing their language and therefore their ability to communicate with their own families.

A systematic suppression of American Indian culture occurred during this era, which included the banning of American Indian spiritual practices and the speaking of native language, all of which held severe punitive repercussions.

When the families did resist the boarding school system under Morgan, he responded with swift discipline. In 1892, he wrote to his superior, the Secretary of Interior, that “whenever it seemed wise, resorted to mild punishment by the withholding of rations or supplies, and, where necessary,…directed (Indian) Agents to use their Indian police as truant officers in compelling attendance.”

In justifying his punitive actions, Morgan wrote, “I do not believe that Indians … people who for the most part speak no English, live in squalor and degradation, make little progress from year to year, who are a perpetual source of expense to the government and a constant menace to thousands of their white neighbors, a hindrance to civilization and a clog on our progress have any right to forcibly keep their children out of school to grow up like themselves, a race of barbarians and semi-savages.”

Training Indian Youth for Economic Survival

The next major litmus of the state of Indian Education came in 1901 with the new director of Indian Education, Estelle Reed. She concluded that the goal of assimilation had not been fulfilled, and as a remedy for this perceived failure of Indian Education, Reed prescribed a renewed curriculum based on making Indians “self-supporting as speedily as possible.” Her focus was the training of Indian students for vocations rather than giving them standard academics. She wrote, “literary instruction should be secondary, and industrial training of primary importance in the system of Indian education.”

Reed introduced the concept of training Indian youth to be agricultural workers, and included a focus on the cultural arts for the first time in the Rules of Indian Education. Her primary concern was economic self-sufficiency, and she saw the benefit of commodifying the native traditional cultural arts such as basket making. The unintended benefit, however, was a preservation of some traditional art forms, the evidence of which is prized by collectors and held in museums today.

Reed held her position until 1910, and her legacy of emphasizing vocational training lasted long past her tenure as director of Indian Education. In 1915, the book of Rules once again limited academics, favoring handiwork skills over even the basic instruction of the English language and reading.

Public Interest Spurs Changes in Indian Policy

During the economic boom time of the 1920’s, public interest in the life of Native people rose dramatically. The Santa Fe Railroad had effectively invented tourism to the American West, and travel posters beckoned the traveler to explore previously unseen Native lands. This public interest, driven by tourism marketing and the railroad industry, led to increased coverage of Indian life in newspapers and magazines.

When the public became aware of the state of native youth and Indian Education, pressure was laid on the federal government to improve conditions. Intense public criticism led the current Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, to commission a report by the Brookings Institute to investigate Indian education. The resulting document, published in 1928, came to be known as the Meriam Report, after principle author Lewis Miriam.

This study, entitled The Problem of Indian Administration, harshly criticized the condition of the schools, the care of the students, and the philosophy and execution of the schools’ curriculum: “Very little of the work provided in Indian boarding schools is directly vocational in the sense that it is aimed at a specific vocation which the youngster is to pursue, or based upon a study of known industrial opportunities, and vocational direction in the form of proper guidance, placement, and follow-up hardly exists at all.”

The Meriam Report called for a complete revision in federal Indian Education policy, including an overhaul of the very nature of education in Indian schools. It reported on the apparent failure of vocational training, and recommended that the government arrest the work to assimilate the Indian child, replacing it with a child-centered approach that would be attentive to the needs of each individual student.

The report challenged the department of Indian Education to employ vocational, academic, and cultural studies to the full benefit of the Indian student.  In a bold move that reflected the general public’s interest in Native America, the Report suggested that Indian schools incorporate “key elements of Indian life and culture” into the curriculum.

Meriam marked a significant turning point in Indian education. Not only for it’s findings, but also for it’s role in displaying the power of public opinion and “modern” media in the forming of federal Indian policies. Good Housekeeping Magazine, which was very popular and well–read across America during this time, ran a series of articles about Indian education based upon the Meriam Report.

The resulting public outcry led to the Hoover administration’s almost doubling of federal appropriations to Indian schools between 1928 and 1933. These collective developments were referred to as the Indian New Deal, and were considered part of the social reform movement that swept through the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

For the next generations of Indian school children, life was a little easier at the off-reservation boarding schools. While conditions and educational standards were not on par with mainstream public schools, children were no longer subjected to the earlier militaristic assimilation policies, and were often allowed to return home during the Summer months.

While these are small concessions for native youth who were separated from family, environment and culture, they were vast improvements from previous Indian Education policy.

The Meriam Report stated, “The Indian family and social structure must be strengthened, not destroyed…” and while efforts were made to change policy, the reality of application did not always measure up. In hindsight, it is clear that while the overt intention shifted away from “kill the Indian to save the man,” the boarding school experience continued to irrevocably change the realities of Indian life with each passing generation, adding to the cumulative loss of culture, language, and the unique experience of being Indian and part of the extended network of tribal family.

The increased federal funding during the New Deal period went to “local districts, reservation day schools, and public schools which had been established on Indian trust lands.” These additional federal funds allowed for Indian children to get an education while staying closer to home.

This period of Indian education lasted about twenty years, until the federal termination policies took hold during the 1950’s. During this time, federal Indian policy literally terminated the recognition of some Indian tribes, with the eventual goal of again assimilating native people into the mainstream society.

With the era of tribal termination came extreme budget cuts, reversing much of the progress for Indian education that had been in place since the New Deal. Many of the local tribal day schools were closed due to lack of federal funding.

The educational life of thousands of Indian children, over many decades, has been at the mercy of the fluctuations in federal policy, and the expansion and contraction of Congressional appropriations. As children’s lives are so shaped by the time spent in school, these shifts in policy and their practical application have had direct influence on generations of Indian children and their families.

The Civil Rights Era and Modern Indian Education Policy

The next phase in Indian Education policies coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Historically, a resurgence of focus on social services across the board tends to include renewed energy and funding for Indian programs, including education.

President John F. Kennedy was committed to both the support of Indian Nations, and the elevation of education for all American youth. This combination created a new era for Indian Education, and in 1961, Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, appointed a Task Force on Indian Affairs. The resulting report recommended “a wide range of new activities in Indian education, from increased funds for scholarships to the encouragement of Indian parent participation in the formulation of school programs.”

In 1966, the Presidential Task Force on Indian Affairs outlined new emphasis on Indian Education, placing responsibility for improving life for native people on the improvement of the educational system, strongly endorsing Indian control of the school systems and the need for quality education. In 1968, a Special Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education, under the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, conducted an extensive hearing on Indian education. The resulting report, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge” was published in 1969.

This comprehensive document, commonly known as The Kennedy Report, focused national attention on the state of education for American Indian and Alaska Native students. The 60-point report recommended increased tribal control in education policies and across-the-board improvements in indian education, including the creation of a National Indian board of education, which spurred the creation of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). It also called for the creation of an exemplary federal school system for Indian students.

The report included historical analysis, and stated that “the coercive assimilation policy has had disastrous effects on the education of Indian children…” It pointed to the results of generations of assimilation policies, including scathing criticism of a failed government responsibility to educate Indian children and be respectful of cultural differences.

The Kennedy report stated, “1. The classroom and the school system (have become) a sort of battleground in which the Indian child attempts to protect his integrity and identity as an individual by defeating the purposes of the school. 2. Schools that fail to understand or adapt, and-in fact-often denigrate cultural differences. 3. Schools that blame their own failures on Indian students and reinforce their defensiveness. 4. Schools that fail to recognize the importance and validity of the Indian community, causing both the community and its children to retaliate by treating the school as an alien institution. 5. A dismal record of much absenteeism, many dropouts, negative self-image, low achievement, and, ultimately, academic failure for many Indian children. 6. A perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, which undermines the success of all other federal programs.”

Nixon Ushers in Tribal Self-Determination in Indian Education

The next major milestone for tribes and Indian education policy came on July 8, 1970, when President Nixon delivered a message to Congress ordering a new approach on Indian policy, condemning forced termination and specifying recommendations for Indian self-determination. A direct result of Nixon’s declaration was the Indian Education Act of 1972, which established the Office of Indian Education and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.

This landmark legislation outlined a comprehensive approach to meeting the unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Most significantly, it mandated the consultation of Indian people in the creation of Indian education policy and management.  The Act specified that “all projects funded under the legislation must be developed and conducted with the cooperation of tribes, parents and students so that the Indian future in education can be determined in full conjunction with Indian desires and decisions.”

The Act primarily sought to uplift the academic performance of Indian and Alaska Native students while honoring unique tribal identity and maintaining cultural traditions, thereby giving them the tools to succeed in modern society without the intent of assimilation into mainstream Euro-American culture.

Subsequent legislation has built upon the Indian Education Act of 1972, and has included the following revisions and reauthorizations: In 1974, PL 93-380 amends the Act to add a teacher training program and a fellowship program; The 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act; 1988: PL 100-297 makes BIA funded schools eligible to apply for formula grants. Also creates an authorization for Gifted and Talented education; 1994: PL 103-382 reauthorizes Indian Education as Title IX Part A of ESEA.

The formula grants reauthorization is amended to require a comprehensive plan to meet the academic and culturally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students; 2001: PL 107-110 Indian Education is reauthorized as Title VII Part A of the No Child Left Behind Act. The formula grants are to be based on challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards that are used for all students and designed to assist Indian students in meeting those standards.

The unique aspects of the original authority have been retained through subsequent legislative reauthorizing statutes, with the latest revision occurring with the amendments made by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which reauthorized the program as Title VII Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Indian Education legislation is unique in the following ways:

1.    It recognizes that American Indians have unique, educational and culturally related academic needs and distinct language and cultural needs;
2.    It is the only comprehensive Federal Indian Education legislation, that deals with American Indian education from pre-school to graduate-level education and reflects the diversity of government involvement in Indian education;
3.    It focuses national attention on the educational needs of American Indian learners, reaffirming the Federal government’s special responsibility related to the education of American Indians and Alaska Natives; and
4.    It provides services to American Indians and Alaska Natives that are not provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Current State of Indian Education

Today, 56 community-controlled schools operate under contract from the BIA (OIEP schools). In addition, 20 tribally-controlled community colleges have been started. The 103 elementary and secondary schools still operated directly by the BIA now have local Indian school boards with a voice in the operation of the school, including the selection of staff.

While not as prevalent, the American Indian boarding school still exists, although attendance is voluntary. Most schools now work closely with surrounding American Indian tribes, employing tribal members as staff and reflecting the culture of American Indian students as part of its educational programming.

Locally controlled, BIA-operated, and public schools have all sought to hire more Indian teachers and administrators and to engage in local curriculum development. A few schools now provide initial reading instruction in tribal languages, and most schools that serve Indian children teach some tribal history and culture.

In most recent years, tribal councils implementing self-determination policies have been expanding their influence and decision–making power into the education system. Tribal education policies are created to express a strong commitment to educational excellence as well as tribal languages and cultures. For example, the Navajo tribal educational policies of 1985 declared that the Navajo language was an essential element of the life, culture, and identity of the tribe and mandated school instruction in both Navajo and English.

On November 6, 2000, President Bill Clinton issued and signed Executive Order 13175, mandating Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments in the formation of federal Indian policy.

In a significant step toward the next phase of development in Federal Indian Policy, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Memorandum on November 5, 2009, during the White House Tribal Nations Conference held at the Interior Department’s headquarters in D.C, that directs all Federal departments and agencies to develop a “plan of actions” to implement the policies and directives of Executive Order 13175.

President Obama issued his executive memorandum supporting tribal consultation as “a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.”

Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, said, “The effort we are undertaking today to develop Interior’s plan as called for by the President will begin a new and positive chapter in the history of Federal-tribal relations.”


While much progress has been made in Indian education since the Kennedy Report and Nixon’s era of Tribal Self-determination, Indian and Alaska Native students are still struggling with achievement levels far below the national average. In addition, the full effect of psycho-social ills seen in poverty–stricken communities is widely evident. These effects include widespread drug and alcohol use, endemic problems with gang activities, truancy, anecdotal violence within the school population, the nation’s highest rates of teenage suicides, and other forms of anti-social, addictive, self-medicating and self-destructive behaviors.

There have been many attempts to analyze and address the problems endemic in Native youth, both within the schools systems and in the tribal communities. It is clear that the problems facing Indian and Alaska Native students are monumental, and the contributing factors of historical maltreatment of Indian people cannot be underestimated.

The renovation of tribal communities and the family structures is an on-going process. However, the key to addressing current needs of Indian and Alaska Native students is to deal with the immediate high risks to the health and safety of those 44,000 children being served by the Department of Indian Education.

There is an opportunity to create a significant change, expeditiously, for those students being served by the education system, by providing access to education, support services, and tools related to those threats to personal health and safety that have invaded schools nationwide. Students can only thrive when they are in a safe and nurturing environment. It is through the continued development of the optimal learning environment that Indian children will recognize their true potential and have the opportunity to excel.

The Native Voice: Bits of Blog from the Obama Campaign Trail

obamatravelingpress  1891Saturday, May 17, 2008

This morning started early, with bright, warm sunshine in Portland, Oregon. Sunday morning is no time to relax if you are on the campaign trail with Barack Obama. The bus headed out of town, over the river and into the suburbs, accompanied all the way by the ever-present police escort. Being “on the campaign” means being swept by secret Service every morning, and being inside the motorcade on the road all day.

A short trip on the interstate and then winding through roads, thick trees on either side. The campaign trail is definitely off the main highways, into the smaller towns and county fairs of the countryside. Yesterday was an ice cream stop, in the small town near Rosedale, as a treat to locals and traveling staff. The press crammed into this small store, sandwiched behind the the counter to get the angle, to tell the story. Michelle and Barack Obama enter the store, and act casual, greeting the people gathered on the sidewalk as they come in, then shaking hands all around inside the store. A studied casualness, ordering ice cream, tasting flavors, playing with a friend’s baby, paying at the cash register even though the owner says its on the house. Barack says, “I insist,” and pulls out his wallet to pay for ice cream he’s ordered for his wife, friends and staff in the room.

The traveling press can not help but be aware of the star magnitude of Barack. A lot of discussion and analysis goes on about the details the people who wait in line in the wee hours of the morning to get a seat at the rally, the personality and presentation of Obama, the boring repetition of the events “Yeah it was a good speech, that one is always good,” and endless comparison between the candidates and campaigns. Many of the traveling press have been on both the Hillary and the Barack road shows, and some have even worked on the McCain campaign trail. These people live with the campaigns day in and day out. They get to know the candidates in a way that is unusual – they are in close proximity every day on the trail – on the plane, at the events…. but they are kept enough at a distance to keep their cool, their journalistic resolve of neutrality. And then, some of them don’t. Whispers are made, one to the other, “I know as a journalist I am supposed to be impartial, but… wow.” One writer, a bureau chief for a major metropolitan newspaper, insists that it is all the same to him. He doesn’t “believe the hype” and is certain that the public is being duped, stating, “Hope is the opiate of the masses.” On the other end of the spectrum, a reporter for a major cable news station states confidentially that “Barack is the REAL DEAL man,” and he tears up about the life-shifting experience this campaign has been for him.

We arrived at the Iris Festival of Kaizer in the afternoon. Billed as a “county fair,” this festival was carnival rides and food stands nestled on pavement between a Best Western hotel one one side and a bank on the corner. Unusually hot for Oregon in May, the temperature crept over 90 degrees as everyone waited for Obama to “finish a conference call.” Obama emerged from the big black bus and started to work the line, shaking hands and smiling. One woman on the line broke down sobbing as Barack greeted her. Shaking visibly, she placed her hand over her mouth. He offers to take a photo with her, and she and her friends surround the senator, all smiling, wiping their eyes. This is a familiar scene here on the campaign trail. Shrieking fans, women (and men) breaking down in tears. And it is not limited to the young and the hip. The crowds are mixed with people of all ages. Yesterday an elderly white woman in a wheel chair looked up at Obama with sparkling eyes and he spent several minutes with her. Exactly what they talked about we couldn’t hear, but it made for a good photo opportunity. Michelle was right behind him, and also leaned in to greet the woman as her family snapped photos and said, “That’s my grandma!”

The difficult thing was trying to get even one shot off. Outside, working a crowd, with moveable structures of all shapes and sizes, this stop presented a security nightmare. It therefore also provided a challenge to the press trying to get photographs. Surrounded by protection, pressing fans, secret service and personal body guards, it became very difficult to find a space in the narrow aisles to get any real work done. I ended up walking next to Michelle Obama at one point, and she extended her hand to introduce herself, we exchanged a few words and then were swept up in the flow of people moving quickly to the next greeting point.

Later in the day, we headed back to Portland and got time to relax and enjoy the evening.

Sunday, May 18, Portland and Pendleton, Oregon

It’s back on the bus, but the destination wasn’t far.. .just down the road to the waterfront, where a surprise record crowd of over 80,000 awaited us. People as far as the eye could see. The air prickled with energy as Obama took to the stage and the crowd roared to life. Deafening. I spotted a group of Native people in the crowd, and after Obama left the stage, the press photographers used the stage as a vantage point. I pointed at the group as they were holding hand drums aloft as a message in a sea of people. They waved and yelled and made “O for Obama” signs with their hands.

This crowd surpassed all records set in the 2008 presidential campaign cycle, and was more than double the size of the largest Obama rally to date. Faces of all ages, and a spectrum of races and ethnicities were represented in the record-breaking crowd.

Once we got back on the busses, we headed to the airport to board the Obama plane once again, moving from urban Portland to the more isolated area of Pendleton. A quick “wheels up” and soon we were descending through the clouds to see beautiful green and multicolored rolling hills as we came in for a landing and another campaign stop.

This was a high school gymnasium “Town Hall” meeting, and Obama gave a shout out to the Umatilla Tribe of Umpqua Indians as part of his welcoming introduction. His speech mentioned Native Americans as part of “all Americans,” and he continued his message of unity and hope for the country at large.

Interesting thing is, I interviewed a few Native people in the crowd, and they did not stress any Indian affairs issues as their primary concerns. They are concerned with the same issues as the average American. The answer to my question of “What is the most important issue for you?” was “The war in Iraq.” The second answer was, “The economy.” These people are feeling a part of the larger society and a young Umatilla man even said, “This is not about Native America, it is about America, as one.” And then he started listing other ethnic groups as “Being in it together, as one.” Whether this message is coming from the internet, the Obama campaign…or is just a new relationship that the Native youth have with the larger world because of the increased media and technological access to a global community is yet to be seen. But it was interesting, to be sure. When I asked their grandmother her most important issue, she answered that she was “Concerned with the youth, that they get focused on something, on anything.”

Maybe it is this spoken message by Obama that is changing the relational understanding that the Native youth are having with the rest of the world. This is a new phenomenon. Past elections have seen native people either not participating, or saying “What is this person going to do for me, for my issues, for my community?” Maybe it is a regional difference, but this definitely reflects a shift in the issues Indian people care about.

Obama stated in his speech here, “There’s been a tragic relationship between the US government and tribes around this country. It is important that we have a government that respects the government-to-government relationships with tribes…. So many Native American children are not getting what they need in order to succeed. We need to be a better partner…. The BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) is an example of one the bureaucracies that needs to get out of Washington… ”

Monday, May 19, Billings and Crow Agency, Montana

The day on the campaign trail started off with a trip to a high school in Billings, Montana where Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech focusing on national and foreign policy. Afterwards, he held a town hall-style meeting and took questions from the crowd. Obama called on a young Native man, who asked what he would do to help “Indian Country and the tribes” with a host of different issues.

Obama spoke for over three minutes on a variety of issues, including honoring treaties, respecting tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship, and fixing the Indian health system. He also expressed his support for a bill to create a National Native American Heritage Day, slated to be the day after Thanksgiving. The goals of the initiative include working with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to develop and distribute Native curriculum to public schools nationwide.

Next on the schedule was a trip to Crow Agency, on the Crow Reservation, where representatives from seven Montana tribes and other visiting tribal leaders gathered for an outdoor rally at the Apsaalooke Veterans Park near the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The Crow Game, Fish and Parks Department estimated the total attendance to be over 4,000 people, including tribal members and others from surrounding communities.

Obama was introduced by Robert Old Horn and the Black Eagle family, who had held an adoption ceremony for the candidate, giving him the family name “Obama Black Eagle,” and a Crow name that translates to “One who helps all the people across the land.”

Crow Tribe Chairman Carl Venne introduced Obama, presenting him with gifts for his “wives and daughters.” “I only actually have one wife,” Obama joked. “I can come home with more family, but not with more wives.” The crowd laughed and a few people shouted out, “We love you, Obama!”

After thanking the tribe for the gifts, Obama reflected on the historic wrongs inflicted on Indian Country by the United States. He stated that he would insist that the federal government would honor treaty obligations, uphold the sovereign relationship, fix the inefficient Bureau of Indian Affairs, fully fund the Indian Health Service and investigate and fix the broken trust fund. Obama said he would not treat tribes as a singular entity, noting that “One size, one fix does not fit all” when it comes to tribal issues.

He ended his speech with a promise to return to Crow country and a recognition of the responsibility that came along with his adoption into the tribe. “I am a member of the family now,” he said.

Frmr. Senator Tom Daschle re-caps the S.D. Tribal leaders Meeting with Barack Obama

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD)

Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) introduces presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) at the Sioux Falls Arena.

Interview and photo by Lise Balk King

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, May 16, 2008

The Native VOICE:

Can you give us a wrap up about what happened in the closed-door meeting with the South Dakota tribal leaders?

Senator Tom Daschle:

Well, first of all I think it was an important opportunity for Barack to hear directly from many tribal leaders from the upper Great Plains, especially South Dakota, without interruption and without the normal throngs of outside pressures. It was a very quiet and very thoughtful discussion about issues effecting Indian Country. Secondly, it was an opportunity for the tribal chairmen and other tribal leaders to hear directly, in his own words, from Barack Obama about his vision for Indian country, about his priorities effecting the government-to-government relationship that we think is very important.

The Native VOICE:

Were there any issues that were dealt with that were specific to the tribes in South Dakota that were unique to the tribes in SD?


I don’t think that there were any specific things about South Dakota, except that Barack mentioned that South Dakota in particular is well positioned to be a significant contributor to alternative energy development and that energy for tribes in South Dakota could be as big as gaming has been for tribes in other parts of the country.

The Native VOICE:

We know this has been a major focus of yours. Would you like to touch on why you’ve been encouraging tribes to get involved in alternative energy development?


Well first of all, I think we have to be realistic in understanding that gaming won’t be as lucrative in some parts of the country as it is in others. Secondly, we also have to realize that one of our greatest assets are the natural resources that we have in Indian country. With potential for production of biofuels, solar, maybe geothermal, we have an abundance of natural resources that, if harnessed, could be extremely productive from an economic development, point of view. Third, we have a real demand for alternative energy in the country today. So given those three forces it seems to me that Indian country is very strategically located to be able to take full advantage of the effort to change our energy dependence away from foreign countries and more towards our own country.

I think that all of the Indian assets could play an important role in solving our nation’s energy and climate challenge but if that’s going to happen we have to give Indian country the tools to develop those resources, including opportunities to take full advantage of tax laws in this country that tribes can not currently avail themselves of. It’s important that they have the same opportunity to use the production tax credit, for example, that non-Indians can use today and we have to change the laws to accommodate that.

The Native VOICE:

What were some of the most important points the tribal leaders brought up? What were they most concerned with?


Well, I think mostly tribal leaders are concerned about insuring that the next President understands the importance of government-to-government relationships, that we understand the importance of tribal sovereignty, and that we understand the importance of the responsibility of the government to live up to its treaty obligations. This includes providing adequate resources, or help for infrastructure, to law enforcement, for education and for many of the other important pieces of the tribal agenda that have gone unaddressed for these last eight years, and they raised those priorities with Senator Obama.

The Native VOICE:

Do you think there was anything that was new information for him that was brought out during the tribal leaders meeting, that was sort of a surprise?


I think he might have been surprised a little bit about the depth of the concern for the bureaucracy and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and how unresponsive they are oftentimes to the challenges that tribes face today.

The Native VOICE

What was his response?


His response was that we’ve got to streamline the federal bureaucracy, we’ve got to find other ways to communicate, including having an Indian Summit and having a senior policy advisor in the White House who can help augment cutting through the bureaucracy and getting the job done.

The Native VOICE:

Did the power of the Native Vote in South Dakota come up in the conversation?


Yes it came up quite a bit. We talked about the power of the Native Vote and recent elections in South Dakota and around the country, the power of the Native Vote this year in particular, and it was very important. Discussion was also focused on Native American Heritage Day and the importance of that day, and recognizing the need for continued improvement in relations between indian and non-indian people.

The Native VOICE:

There were a lot of comments made by Sen. Obama to the tribes, promises of changes and intentions. Was there anything he was asking of the tribal leaders that they offered in return?


I think that Barack Obama asked of the tribal leaders three things. First, he said was appreciative of their support for those who have already expressed it, and he was hopeful that the tribes could make a real effort in getting out the vote in this important election. Secondly, that they continued to advise him on matters of import to Indian people all over the country. Third, that we begin to build a very constructed relationship between tribes and Senator Obama that could, if he were to be elected President of the United States, that it could serve as the basis of a new relationship between the President and tribal leaders.

The Native VOICE:

Thank you so much.

Ellis Island Medal of Honor 2008 Awarded to Frmr Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO)

NEW YORK, NY – Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of the Cheyenne Tribe of Oklahoma, was one of 100 people honored with the NECO Ellis Island Medal of Honor Award at this year’s ceremonies on Saturday, May 12, 2008. The award recognizes Campbell as a powerful leader for his many years of distinguished public service to America as well as his unique position as a voice for Indian Country within the halls of Congress.

Campbell has ancestors from both Native America (Northern Cheyenne) and Immigrant America (Portuguese), and his honorable legacy is a merging of these two sometimes divergent realities. As a politician, he embodies a bridge between these two worlds. As a man, he symbolizes a powerful legacy of love and understanding for his country, and for his people.

Like all of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor awardees, Campbell is recognized for his achievements in the mainstream society, but he is also being acknowledged as a representative from Indian country, from Tribal America, and for what he represents to that vast and unique constituency. Senator Campbell has spoken out many times about the dual role he was compelled to play while serving in Congress.

On one hand, he did his job for the constituents of Colorado, those people up elected him to office. On the other hand, as the sole Native American person inside that circle of influence and power on Capitol Hill, Senator Campbell was, and still is, thought of as a voice for Indian Country at large.

Campbell was a U.S. Senator from Colorado from 1993 until 2005 and was for some time the only Native American serving in the U.S. Congress. Campbell was a U.S. Representative from 1987 to 1993, and he was sworn into office as a Senator following his election on November 3, 1992. He was only the third Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate in history. Campbell also serves as one of forty four members of the Council of Chiefs of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe.

Campbell was the first person to address the Senate in full Indian regalia, white beaded buckskin, and full chiefs head dress contrasting against a sea of dark suits. His presence was a statement about the continuation of Native American tribes and their enduring cultural heritage. Campbell was instrumental in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, DC. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the museum, he said, “No longer will Native American culture be bottled up in collections and hidden from so many people in the world who wish to share them.”

A New Step for NECO, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations

In keeping with their mission of holding up examples of individuals who do achieve the American Dream while maintaining their own cultural identity and heritage, NECO is including tribal America this year with their honoring of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and have stated their intention to continue this new tradition with the honoring of a Native American every year going forward. Cherokee Principle Chief Wilma Mankiller is the only other Native American to have received this honor, in 1997.

Executive Director Rosemarie Taglione stated that NECO intends to “build a bridge of honoring, of understanding, and of healing from communities of immigrant cultures and families to communities of indigenous tribal people living in America today,” starting in 2008 with the honoring of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Established in 1986 by NECO, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor pay tribute to the ancestry groups that “comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic.” To date, more than 1,000 American citizens have received medals, including former Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist, Muhammad Ali; Rosa Parks, Elie Wiesel, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Her Excellency Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, President of the 61st Session of the UN General Assembly; and Quincy Jones.

Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipients are selected each year through a national nomination process. Campbell was nominated by Kurt Luger, executive director of the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association, and New York businessman Bernard “Beau” Lange. Screening committees from NECO’s member organizations select the final nominees, who are then considered by the Board of Directors. Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have officially passed resolutions recognizing the Ellis Island Medals of Honor, which rank among this country’s most prestigious awards. Each year, Ellis Island Medal of Honor recipients are listed in the Congressional Record, honoring those who have made enduring contributions to our nation and to the world.

NECO’s mission is “to create the world of the future today, by honoring our diverse past, advocating for positive change in the present, and building strong leaders for the future.” The foundation partners with a wide variety of organizations, both national and international. It supports diverse ethnic cultural events, sponsors life-saving surgery for children, assists emergency relief efforts worldwide, and produces educational materials and programs that mentor youth to become the leaders of tomorrow. NECO continues its long-standing commitment to Ellis Island, supporting the ongoing restoration of its educational facilities.

For a full list of the 2008 Ellis Island Medal of Honor Awardees, go to

Frmr. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was one of the few featured speakers at the Ellis Island Medal of Honor Awards event in New York City, on Ellis Island on Saturday, May 12, 2008. The evening was a very patriotic event, with all branches of the the military represented in formation, in their dress uniforms. The event paid tribute to all of the awards winners with a salute and a rousing rendition of “God Bless America.”

Senator Campbell took this unique opportunity to educate the two thousand attendees, including many of New York’s elite, in a little bit of Indian history:

“As a former Air Force military man from the Korean War, I have to tell you I always have a wonderful feeling of elation and hope and pride when civic functions in America involve so much of our military men and women. Your presence is a constant reminder of how important they are to our freedom. One of my bills that I am most proud of that I passed the United States Senate was the bill that was signed by William Jefferson Clinton that authorized the black POW-MIA flag as a national symbol to be flown five times a year by all federal properties such as Ellis Island.

It was brought to my mind when Louis Zamperini (WWII veteran, Olympian, motivational speaker) came to the podium. It is extremely important that we do not forget their sacrifices.

I am delighted to be here. I might tell you since there are so many military people here tonight, that American Indian involvement in our military is almost patriotism beyond words, contrary to some of the old movies that exploited the Indian Wars of the American West in the 1800’s.

But the fact is, it was warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy who provided George Washington at Valley Forge with blankets and food, snuck them in in the middle of the night. It was American Indians who were with “Black Jack” Pershing when he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico, and with Teddy Roosevelt when he charged up San Juan Hill.

And, who now has not heard of the celebrated Code Talkers of WWII whose own language was the only code never broken by the Axis. So, certainly we have paid our dues. We have the highest volunteer enlistment per capita of any ethnic group in America.

I’m also delighted there are so many of my tribal brothers and sisters in the audience tonight. Some of them have come an awfully long way to help me celebrate and and I really appreciate them being here.

We’re called American Indians, but it’s almost interchangeable with Native Americans now, as you probably know. We even use it in mixed circles, although in our own circles we prefer our own tribal names. But you obviously know how we got that name, because poor Christopher Columbus was totally lost and stumbled upon our shores and thought he was in India, and we’ve had that name-fiver since.

And in a way, there’s sort of a distant connection between Christopher Columbus and myself. Many of you may not know that he was taught to sail by the Portuguese, my mother’s people, in the Azore Islands. And Christopher Columbus’ wife was an Azorean, she was Portuguese.

In 1992, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the 20th descendent on Christopher Columbus, his name is Cristobal Colon, and he is helicopter pilot with the Spanish Navy. We had a chance to compare his ancestry on the Portuguese side with my ancestry on the Portuguese side. We mused that maybe I had a connection to Christopher Columbus, too.

I sometimes get teased a little bit by my Indian relatives who question the wisdom of my Portuguese ancestor’s teaching Christopher Columbus to sail, and on the other side of that coin are people who can’t believe that we sold Long Island for a handful of beads. But we’re all here and we’re all in this whole thing together now, so we certainly must make the best of it, and we do.

My grand dad on my mother’s side stowed away on a ship to get to New York when they broke a rudder and stopped in the Azore Islands. He said the hardest part was living on the three loaves of bread and one gallon of water he brought on board with him for the trip.

But he made it here, got a job, saved some money and sent for his wife and the five kids. My mother was the youngest of those five, and was six years old when we came here. I think he shared in common what I saw last night and tonight among a lot of our recipients…he was of modest means, he believed in working hard, he was raised with a work ethic as so many of our immigrants are. He knew how to share success when he gained success, and above all, he had a dream.

So it’s kind of strange, I suppose, that my mother would grow up, coming to a country where dreams could be realized, and then marrying a man who came from a people whose dreams were literally shattered by that same exodus from other parts of the world. And they were almost as you probably know, if you’ve read our history, American Indians were almost literally an endangered species by the year 1900, but we have come back.

And contrary to many of the stories that are out there now about the success of Indian tribes, I’m sure you’ve read about some of the success of what we call the casino tribes. Believe me, they are in the minority. There are very few of them making what we might call “serious money,” and some of them are in this part of the Unites States, but most American Indians still face a lifestyle of poverty that is literally a third world country.

I heard the very good words of Mr. Butler speaking about all the children of the world who need our help, and I tell you, some of those children are in this country, and they are American Indians. If you go out on what we call hardcore reservations, they still face a seventy-five percent unemployment. Nationwide, if we get to five percent they think it’s some kind of a national calamity. Try seventy five.

We still have over fifty percent our people on some reservations who suffer from diabetes, partly because they have no money to buy food, and so they live on starchy government surplus things we call commodities. Cans with no labels that have been sent to them by the federal government. No fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables, low protein, you can imagine after years and years of that kind of a diet what it does.

Diabetes, of coarse, leads to bad circulation, then to gangrene, then to amputation, then to death. Over thirty percent of our teenage youngsters on some reservations have tried suicide in at one time in their life. Because too many of them feel that they live in a dead end hopeless atmosphere. Some of them we loose, unfortunately.

When I tell people that it is a matter of fact that the federal government spends more money per capita on rapists, killers and child molesters in our federal penitentiaries than we do through the Indian Health Service for our Indian kids, it’s hard to believe. But that’s a known fact. Senator Dorgan (U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee), who now chairs the committee I used to chair, is trying desperately to do something about that issue.

Well, those things are tough, but some of us are trying desperately to make things a little better. And I think we’re doing it as we kind of soldier on, and many of those Indian leaders are in the audience today. We know that if we work hard enough we will make life a little better for our grand kids, than what our grandparents faced in boarding schools, and, in fact, in the face of genocide practices that were done in California and in some of the New England states. That’s where the name “Redskin” came from. As you probably know, it is a name we do not like. It was when people would turn in, during the French and Indian Wars, a bit of black hair or red skin, they would get a bounty.

I don’t know of any other American…even though there were terrible, tragic things that happened to Japanese Americans during WWII, and to Black Americans during the slave days. And so many discriminatory things have happened to Irish Americans, and to many others. But, I don’t know of any other people, in this great nation, who had a bounty put on them. Except us. We did.

Well I am really delighted to be here in the company of so many distinguished people, who have made this great nation greater. But I would hope that they would remember that there are still people from the first Americans who have not shared in the success of our newest Americans. Somewhere along the line I hope we will begin to realize that and rectify it, and become truly one people under God. Thank you.

An Exclusive Interview with Senator Barack Obama

Barack Obama greets supporters in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Photo by Lise King

Barack Obama greets supporters in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Photo by Lise King

The Native VOICE:

What is your understanding of Indian Country, and what your understanding of tribes in America?

Senator Barack Obama:

Well, obviously I have enormous respect for the traditions and the history of the first people on this continent. And I think it is very important for us to make sure that we understand that there is a government-to-government relationship, that we need to fulfill our treaty obligations, that the United States government has not always fulfilled those treaty obligations – I intend to when I am president. And reflecting that government-to-government relationship, I am going to put a high priority on having a senior policy advisor, cabinet level, in the White House, who can meet with me on a regular basis. And I want to make sure that we’ve got ongoing meetings on an annual basis with tribal leaders so that they can communicate directly on issues ranging from what’s happening in health care in Indian Country to what’s needed in terms of preserving sovereignty, to our dealing with natural resource issues. I think that relationship of respect is what is most important.


How would you change the relationship in the way the tribes deal with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior?


Well, as I said, I want to make sure that there is a person in the White House who people can contact directly, so that they’re not just working through a bureaucracy. One of the things that I think is very important is to figure out how we can create a Bureau of Indian Affairs that is much more responsive, friendly and focused. Sometimes I think the federal government is a very distant entity, has a lot of rules and regulations, but unfortunately not the budget that’s needed to fulfill some of its missions. What I want to do is spend some time talking to tribal leaders on the ground, find out from them what would make a difference, how can we change things, how can we make sure that we’re more responsive. If we do that, then I’m confident that Indian Country can be a place of prosperity and peace, and a place where the vitality of the cultures is preserved.


Your approach seems to be one of going in and saying, How can we fix this? How can we make people’s lives better?




What would you do in Indian Country? Do you have a sense of what the real issues are on the ground?


Sure. Well, I mean there are a couple of priorities obviously. Indian Health Services is woefully inadequate, and that’s why I have consistently voted to significantly increase, and have sponsored calls to increase, health care dollars for tribal communities. I think it is very important that our education system works for Native children, and that has to be done in consultation with tribal leadership. But what is also true is that young people are going to be able to prosper in an economy that is global. They’re going to need a better education than they’re getting right now. Obviously it’s important to think about new economic development strategies. Gaming has been very important for a lot of tribes, but I think the opportunities, for example, on clean energy, like wind power, harnessing that energy, linking it to a renewed grid that can distribute that energy around the country, making sure that tribes are benefiting from these natural and renewable resources. I think that can be an incredibly powerful tool for economic development. And then obviously there are issues like substance abuse, crime, suicide, that have to do with mental health services, and those have to be provided in a way that is culturally appropriate. I think that unfortunately too often we don’t have enough sensitivity to what is going on in these communities, and we haven’t trained enough people within the communities, to provide the services that are needed.


The most important question that tribal leaders and people on the ground want to know is, can you give us some specifics about how you intend to recognize and respect sovereignty of the tribes?


I’m a big believer in abiding by past treaties and making sure that we are respecting these tribal governments. And that means that, on a whole host of issues, where there are potential conflicts between tribal decisions and U.S. policy, I think we have to understand that we can’t just run roughshod over those tribal decisions. That’s why I think it’s so important to set up an ongoing liaison within the White House to resolve these issues as they come up, and not allow them to fester, or to be decisions made at a lower level. And I don’t think that we should just have courts resolve many of these issues. I think at some point the executive branch has some responsibility to be proactive, and not passive. Because often times it might take twenty years to resolve some of these issues. And that I think is not sufficient.


The question is, as a follow-up, it’s going to take not just executive, but legislative and funding decisions and appropriations – that could be a difficult thing.


Well obviously I’m going to have to work with Congress as president. We have co-equal branches of government. I’m not going to be able to dictate my agenda. But what I can do is to be an advocate. And I intend to be an advocate for Indian Country, and for Native American people, who have for too long been forgotten.


Would you support the creation of Native American Heritage Day as a way to help educate America?


Oh yes, I am a big booster of that, the creation of Native American Heritage Day.


Thank you, Senator.


You’re welcome, and thank you.