Barack Obama got off a wonderful line last week when he spoke to more than 500 of the nation’s tribal leaders at a major conference in Washington. The president recalled his Montana campaign last year and the occasion of his adoption by Hartford and Mary Black Eagle of the Crow Tribe.
“Only in America,” Obama said, “could the adoptive son of Crow Indians grow up to become President of the United States.” The quip reportedly got a big laugh and illustrates Obama’s deft touch and graceful sense of humor. The presidential attention may also signal a new day – long overdue – of federal government attention to tribal issues.
In 1934, another president – Franklin Roosevelt – on another trip to Montana was honored by the Blackfeet Tribe with a ceremony near Two-Medicine Chalet in Glacier National Park. That’s FDR in the back seat of his Cadillac touring car. He had spent the day touring the park. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is standing next to then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes.
In my read of New Deal history, FDR’s policies toward tribal nations were a mixed bag. Roosevelt championed the Wheeler-Howard Act, also known as the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 or, as then-BIA Commissioner John Collier preferred, the Indian New Deal.
Well intentioned as most of Roosevelt’s policy was, it still suffered from a “Washington knows best” bias and even Collier, a generally great Commissioner, possessed a heavy paternalist hand.
Obama’s moves so far seem to hold great promise for true progress on tribal issues.
Obama’s joke about his adopted status was a light hearted moment during an otherwise substantive meeting; a meeting that was almost completely overshadowed in the news cycle by the tragic shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas.
Concluding his remarks, the president said: “I understand what it means to be an outsider. I was born to a teenage mother. My father left when I was two years old, leaving her — my mother and my grandparents to raise me. We didn’t have much. We moved around a lot. So even though our experiences are different, I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I’m in this White House.”
Mark Trahant, an Idaho native from Ft. Hall and a thoughtful commentator on Native American issues, says Obama’s decision to put the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the center of coordinating federal policy regarding tribal nations means the president means business. I agree. Any good bureaucrat knows that policy follows the money.
Obama’s tone and his appointments – former Idaho Attorney General Larry EchoHawk is the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs – together with his empathy and directives to the bureaucracy could truly mark a new era. Let’s hope so.