President Obama and Native Americans
by Karyn Wingard-Manuel

Native American presence at Obama’s Inaguration. Photo: Carosaurus on flickr.com

After only six months it is too early to know how the Obama administration’s policies will impact Native Americans. However, there are early positive signs, and many native communities and leaders are generally pleased with President Obama’s work so far.

Great progress is needed to address the extreme conditions Native Americans face today. Eight of the ten poorest counties in the US are on reservations. The unemployment rate for Native Americans is twice the national average. Crime rates are also excessively high; Native women especially live in fear, as one in three of them will be raped in her lifetime. The conditions Native Americans face are due to centuries of colonization and concerted efforts to destroy native cultures. Understandably, many hold little trust in either US political party.

A “sense of kinship”
During his campaign, Obama traveled to several reservations and at one point said, “[I share a] particular sense of outrage when I see the status of so many Native Americans, and there is a sense of kinship in terms of the struggles that have to be fought.” He has argued for greater respect for tribal sovereignty and tribal rights.

President Obama has appointed an historic number of Native Americans to his administration. Larry Echohawk (Pawnee) is his Assistant Secretary to the Interior on Indian Affairs, Dr. Yvette Roubideaux (Rosebud Sioux) is Director of the Indian Health Service, and Jodi Gillette (Standing Rock Sioux) is the Deputy Associate Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. He also appointed Kimberly Teehee (Cherokee) to the newly-created position of Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs to provide direct interface between tribal communities and the President.

Shaping an Agenda
Obama has planned a Tribal Nations Conference in the fall in order to consult with tribal leaders as he begins to shape his agenda for Indian Country. These steps show a willingness to engage with Native Americans in ways embraced by few previous administrations.
President Obama has also set aside $3 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for tribal communities. This money has gone to “shovel ready” projects such as water services, schools, roads, housing, infrastructure for health services and public safety, green energy and broadband internet. Some of these projects have been “shovel ready” for years. Obama has also proposed increases to the federal budget for Indian health, education, housing and public safety.

Increased resources are particularly important for Indian health, which currently receives only 50% of the funding it requires. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act has not been authorized in 16 years (Obama voted for this legislation as a Senator) and Indian Country is desperate for support. The 2010 budget proposes a 13% increase for the Indian Health Service. Meanwhile, some Native nations are insisting that national health care reform respect tribal sovereignty and lessen the disparity between the health of their communities and that of the rest of the nation. The administration held an Indian Health Summit from July 7-9 to work out some of these concerns.

 Public safety in Indian Country is also a priority for the administration. Poverty and a lack of education contribute to crime. But a complex web of federal, state and local laws fosters overcomplicated jurisdictional lines, a lack of communication between the involved agencies, and too few resources.

Later this year, Attorney General Eric Holder will convene a Tribal Nations Listening Conference to confer with native leaders on how to address the chronic problems of public safety in Indian Country and other important issues affecting tribal communities. Since the last such summit in 1994, crime rates on reservations have escalated. The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, a bill meant to greatly improve public safety for Native Americans, has been introduced in both houses of Congress. The administration has testified in support of the bill and seems willing to cooperate with tribes on its passage and implementation.

Pressure Remains Crucial
Even with the positive changes, Native Americans must continue to push the administration for their rights. So far, this administration has remained relatively quiet on the trust scandal in which the government owes Native Americans over $100 billion due to a mismanagement of funds, and the protection of sacred sites from development or environmental destruction, among many other issues.

Native Americans have called on federal leaders to live up to the treaties which guarantee safety, security, health care, education, cultural and religious freedom as well as sovereignty in return for the lands Native Americans ceded. So far, the Obama administration seems to be taking this responsibility seriously. The administration’s actions in the coming months and years will speak most clearly about its commitment to the rights of Native people.


Karyn works on the Native American Advocacy Program at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker peace lobby, in Washington DC.