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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s