WASHINGTON -- While President Barack Obama’s popularity has slipped in public opinion polls, he found plenty of support Wednesday among one key constituency: the 566 leaders of federally recognized Indian tribes.
“I’d rank him as high as I can go; a 10, really, to be honest with you,” said Leo Lolnitz, first chief of the Koyukuk Native Village in Alaska.
Brian Cladoosby, the chairman of Washington state’s Swinomish Indian Tribal Community for the past 17 years, said Obama was “second to none” when compared with other U.S. presidents.
Tribal leaders consider the occupant of the White House one of their own. To them, he’s Barack Black Eagle Obama, having received his Indian name in 2008 when a couple on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana formally adopted him. And on Wednesday, they got a chance to meet with him yet again, as the president kept a campaign promise by hosting his fifth White House Tribal Nations Conference.
In a 14-minute speech to the tribal leaders, Obama said he’d make his first visit to Indian Country as president sometime next year, though he didn’t say where he plans to go. He visited the Montana reservation when he was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in his first presidential campaign.
The annual gathering at the Interior Department gives tribal leaders a chance to make pitches for what they want from Washington in the coming year. In 2014, tribal leaders want an end to the budget cuts known as sequestration and more authority to manage their own affairs, among other things.
A dozen Cabinet officials met with the tribal leaders, promising more help for such challenges as fighting crime, fixing schools and getting better health care.
But some tribal leaders said the president and his team had too quick to promise and slow to deliver.
“He’s reaching out to us. We really appreciate that, but there’s not a whole lot of things that have happened,” said Bryan Brewer, the president of South Dakota’s Oglala Sioux Tribe. “I feel there’s been a lot of promises to us, but we’re still struggling.”
For example, Brewer said, Obama should have done more to protect tribes from the cuts caused by sequestration: “We should have been exempted from a lot of those things, but we haven’t.”
Obama and his team outlined their list of accomplishments, including: renewing the Violence Against Women Act, which makes it easier for tribes to prosecute non-Indians for domestic violence; getting an additional 230,000 acres placed into trust on behalf of the tribes; spending more on law enforcement, schools and emergency relief; launching a nearly $2 billion buyback program later this year to return thousands of property parcels to tribes; and creating the first White House Council on Native American Affairs.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said the forced budget cuts and last month’s 16-day government shutdown had hit Indian Country hard. But she told the tribal leaders that the Obama administration is determined to help “make your world a better place” despite the tough fiscal climate.
“I know from growing up in this country that the federal government does not have a proud legacy with tribes, and justice can’t be reversed overnight,” Jewell said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that only 36 percent of tribal members were covered by health insurance now but that 94 percent would be covered either under an expansion of Medicaid or by enrolling through the new marketplace created by the president’s health insurance program. She said the new federal law provided “a pathway” for more tribal members to get insured.
Eric Shinseki, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, acknowledged that some veterans lack trust in the government and his department but said he wanted to make things better and ensure that all tribal members got equal access to benefits for veterans.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the administration wanted to do more to reduce crime in Indian Country, including the rates of rape and murder, which he said were far too high among girls and women.
“We simply can’t stand for such an unjust and unacceptable status quo any longer,” he said.
Obama said the poverty rate was too high in Indian Country and that the federal government must do more to expand job opportunities. And he said he wanted to build a stronger relationship between tribes and the federal government, “based on trust and respect.”
The president said he also wanted to make it easier for more tribal members to get access to health care. He saluted the Puyallup Tribal Health Authority in Washington state, where he said tribal members had created the country’s first tribal family-medicine residency program.
“Patients are cared for in a culturally sensitive way, often by Native American staff,” Obama said.
Tribes outlined a long list of their own priorities, including getting more help with economic development projects, appointing more tribal members to judgeships and other high-level federal jobs, spending more on housing and collecting better data to track tribal members.
Arlan Melendez, the tribal chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in Nevada, said tribal leaders wanted to urge the administration to get the Internal Revenue Service to stop conducting audits on Indian land.
“Tribes think it’s an intrusion on sovereign federal land,” he said.
Jim Peters, a tribal council member of the Squaxin Island Tribe in Washington state, gave Obama high marks for helping to advance conservation and fisheries management issues, even with a tight federal budget. And he said tribes wanted to make sure they did as much as they could to advance the efforts during Obama’s final three years in office.
“With our treaty rights at risk back in Washington, he has been listening to us and directing his agencies to work with us,” Peters said.
Cladoosby, the Swinomish chairman, who’s also the president of the National Congress of American Indians, noted that after Wednesday’s event Obama has now met with tribal leaders each year of his presidency. The chairman said that was unprecedented.
“The tribes got one meeting with President Clinton,” Cladoosby said. “During the Bush administration, we got zero meetings.”