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.

TNV:

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

Obama:

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.

TNV:

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

Obama:

Right.

TNV:

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

Obama:

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.

TNV:

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?

Obama:

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.

TNV:

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.

Obama:

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.

TNV:

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

Obama:

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

TNV:

Thank you, Senator.

Obama:

You’re welcome, and thank you.

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