Last night at the First Nations House drumming circle it suddenly struck me (perhaps because the shape of the candle on the middle of floor reminded me of the Washington monument) – why weren’t there a group of Native American drummers at Obama’s inauguration earlier this week? Considering all that talk about reconciliation, wouldn’t have it been appropriate (and necessary) to have some kind of a public recognition of the Native Americans on whose lands and territories ‘the great country of America’ was (alas, often forcibly) established?
It is not that Obama has completely ignored Native Americans, quite the contrary. During his campaign in May, for example, he visited the Crow Nation in Montana where he was adopted into a Crow family and was given the name Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish that translates “one who helps all people of this land.” During his visit, he pledged to bring in a new era of honest federal dealings with Native American nations. He promised, if elected as the president, to “honor long-ignored treaty obligations and revamp health care and education on reservations across the United States.” He was the first presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation so he was received by a crowd of several thousand and was also given a smudging ceremony.
See the video (8 min.) ‘Barack Obama in Crow Agency, MT‘ where, in his public speech, he promises to honour the government-to-government relationship with Native American nations and make it a ‘top priority of his administration.’ He also compares himself and his life circumstances to those of many Native Americans and makes the point that he also knows what it means to be an outsider. This is why he makes the promise that ‘I will never forget you’ as the president.
There is also a group called First Americans for Obama which is ‘a community of people dedicated to bringing positive change to American politics and breaking the cycle of partisan ideology.’ On my.barackobama.com website, you can learn about Barack Obama’s principles and plan for stronger tribal communities. The issues range from sovereignty, tribal-federal relations and the trust responsibility to education, health care, religious freedom and cultural protection, economic and infrastructure issues to violence against women and veterans’ affairs.
Under the rubric of consultation and inclusion, the fact sheet notes: ‘In furtherance of the government-to-government relationship, Barack Obama will include tribal leadership in the important policy determinations that impact Indian Country. Obama will appoint an American Indian policy advisor on his senior White House staff so that Indian Country has a direct interface at the highest level of the Obama Administration. In addition, Obama will host a White House “Tribal G8” — an annual meeting with Native American leaders to develop a national Indian policy agenda.’
This is all a significant departure from the previous administration and now it is only to be seen how these pledges are carried out in reality. In fact, he has already made a start before his inauguration. In late November, he nominated 6 Native American advisors to his transition team. So far, 3 have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues, while three current and former attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund will advise Obama on changes proposed within the Interior Department. As advisers to the Interior transition team, the Indian law experts could inspire a significant transformation within the department’s Indian trust fund system.
Not everyone in the Indian country, however, is convinced. Perhaps the most explicit criticism is expressed by the long-term AIM activist Russell Means who recently argued that “Every policy the Palestinians are now enduring was practiced on the American Indian,” adding that “What the American Indian Movement says is that the American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of the Middle East.”
I refuse to succumb to such cynicism, at least yet. I have to admit I was quite fed up with the hype leading to Tuesday’s inauguration – it just seemed to drag along forever. I didn’t miss the event in purpose, however; I had a class to teach at the same time. I did watch the inauguration speech online right after my class but it wasn’t quite as uplifting and inspiring as his election speech. The shadow of the war in Gaza seemed to be hovering over it all. But my mood started to pick up from there – I have been devouring his acts ever since Tuesday, as if searching more and more evidence and proof that it really means change. And yes, I have been inspired by his whirlwind of executive orders and other activities in the past couple of days. Just last night it suddenly struck me – on Tuesday, where were the Native Americans Obama promised he is going to think every day?
On the Crow reservation in May, Obama stated: “Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” and continued by saying, “That will change when I am president of the United States.”One truly hopes that this wasn’t just election rhetoric to woo Native votes. Considering the striking absense of Native American representatives at the inauguration, one can only wonder whether and how his promise will materialize in the coming months.