Published December 20, 2015
President Obama on Friday became only the third U.S. sitting president in eight decades to set foot in Indian Country, encountering both the wonder of Native American culture and the struggle of tribal life on a breeze-whipped afternoon in the prairie. Amid snapping flags and colorful, befeathered dancers, Obama declared that there was more the U.S. could do to help Native Americans.
Obama drew attention to inroads his administration has made with tribes even as he promoted the need to help reservations create jobs, strengthen justice, and improve health and education.
"Young people should be able to live, and work, and raise a family right here in the land of your fathers and mothers," Obama told a crowd of about 1,800 during a Flag Day Celebration at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Citing legendary tribal chief Sitting Bull, Obama said: "Let's put our minds together to build more economic opportunity in Indian country. Because every American, including every Native American deserves a chance to work hard and get ahead."
The president and first lady arrived by helicopter under sunny skies as native songs and dances at the Flag Day Celebration were already underway. The couple first met privately with tribal youth about their challenges growing up on the reservation that was home to Sitting Bull.
Tribal government Chairman Dave Archambault praised Obama for helping correct "historic wrongs" involving tribal land disputes.
"If Sitting Bull were here today, he would be honored, as I am, to have a president here talking to us," he said.
Obama and Michelle Obama appeared delighted as children, adolescents and adults in face paint and costumes stepped to native dances on the reservation's powwow grounds. Obama nodded to the music and greeted some of the performers before speaking.
Obama, who was adopted into the Crow Nation during his 2008 presidential campaign, said he found common cause with the young people he and his wife met in a reservation elementary school Friday.
"They talked about the challenges of living in two worlds of being both native and American," Obama said, an echo of his own observations in the past about being the son of a Kenyan father growing up in a white society.
"Some bright young people like the ones we met today might look around them and sometimes wonder if the United States really is thinking about them, caring about them and has a place for them, too," he said. "I said, you know, Michelle and I know what it feels like sometimes to go through tough times. We grew up at times feeling like we were on the outside looking in."
As he entertained the crowd before Obama's arrival on the powwow ground, master of ceremonies Anthony Bobtail Bear Sr. raised a hot-button issue in both the nation's capital and among Native Americans — the name of the city's professional football team.
"How many of you like the Washington Redskins?" he asked Obama's entourage. "Eeeeehhhh. Kill 'em off right away."
Today, the 2.3 million-acre reservation is home to about 850 residents who struggle with a lack of housing, health care and education, among other problems familiar on reservations nationwide. The Bureau of Indian Affairs reported in January that about 63 percent of able workers on Standing Rock were unemployed.
With Native American poverty and unemployment more than double the U.S. average, Obama promoted initiatives to spur tribal development and create new markets for Native American products and services. The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Friday that it would make $70 million available to improve tribal housing conditions, including money for mold removal.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was also in Standing Rock on Friday to promote a plan to overhaul the Bureau of Indian Education, which is responsible for educating 48,000 Native American students in 23 states and is lagging behind other school systems by nearly every measure. Native American students have low scores on assessment tests and the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic group.
Obama was visiting North Dakota en route to a weekend away in Palm Springs, California. In 2008, then-candidate Obama pledged to expand health services, improve education, combat methamphetamine dealers, promote economic development and improve housing on reservations.
Democratic North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who accompanied Obama to the reservation, said Obama's trip was a "major step forward in our efforts to elevate the issues facing our Native American citizens to a national level."