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Obama tells tribe in ND visit ‘we can make things better’

President Barack Obama visits with a young dancer alongside Dave Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, during the Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration in Cannon Ball, N.D. on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)3 / 12
President Barack Obama smiles with David Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux tribal leader, after entering the Cannon Ball powwow grounds at the start of the Cannonball Flag Dag Celebration on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)4 / 12
President Barack Obama gathers with children for a photo after his speech at the Standing Rock Reservation Friday. photo by Eric Hylden/Forum News Service5 / 12
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama enter the pow wow grounds in Cannon Ball, N.D. on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)6 / 12
President Barack Obama descends the stairs Friday from Air Force One to the Bismarck Airport, followed by first lady Michelle Obama and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. Katherine Lymn/Forum News Service7 / 12
Dancers and visitors take photos and watch the arrival of President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they arrive at the Cannon Ball powwow grounds for the Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)8 / 12
Erikah Watson, 11, left, and Ellys Gracie, 11, hold a sign which reads, "Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Obama", as they wait for the President and Mrs. Obama to land in Cannonball, N.D. on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)9 / 12
President Barack Obama greets Gov. Jack Dalrymple and other North Dakota leaders on Friday at Bismarck Airport. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama, center, arrived on Air Force One with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. Katherine Lymn/Forum News Service10 / 12
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd at the Cannonball Flag Day Celebration in Cannonball, N.D. on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)11 / 12
Dancers make their way around the arena at the Cannon Ball Flag Celebration during President Barack Obama's visit to Cannon Ball, N.D. on Friday, June 13, 2014. (Kevin Cederstrom/Forum News Service)12 / 12

CANNON BALL, N.D. – President Barack Obama pledged to invest in American Indian youth here Friday during the first visit by a sitting president to a reservation in 15 years, telling a powwow crowd of about 1,800 people that by working together they can “break old cycles” and “give our children a better future.”

Native American dancers in traditional regalia performed for the president and first lady Michelle Obama, who smiled and laughed as some of the children stopped to shake hands and show off their colorful outfits donned for Cannon Ball’s Flag Day Celebration Wacipi on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

In a 12-minute speech, Obama said he’s proud the government-to-government relationship between Washington and tribal nations “is stronger than ever.” But said he wanted to focus on work that lies ahead, including building more economic opportunity in Indian Country and improving schools.

“There’s no denying that for some Americans the deck has been stacked against them, sometimes for generations, and that’s been the case for many Native Americans,” he said. “But if we’re working together, we can make things better.”

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault, who wore a traditional feathered headdress as he and his wife led the president and first lady into the packed powwow arbor, said before introducing Obama that tribes have experienced decades of broken treaties and promises, lands taken and cultures threatened.

But he said he’s encouraged that the administration is looking for ways to better serve native youths after decades of neglect, crumbling schools and underfunding.

“I know that all the challenges of Indian Country cannot be solved in one visit,” he said. “But this is a historic step in our sovereign relationship … and I hope this sets a precedent for more regular visits to Indian Country, only because I believe this trip will inspire our youth, it will provide a spark of hope to our returning veterans and it will strengthen our tribal communities.”

Historic visit

Obama is the first sitting president to visit Indian Country since President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1999 and only the third to do so in the last 80 years, and the historic nature of his visit wasn’t lost on Cannon Ball residents or the other tribal members and leaders from North Dakota and South Dakota who attended.

Standing in her uncle’s driveway with about 20 relatives, Alycia Yellow Eyes, 34, of Mandan, shot video with her cell phone and waved as the president’s ride, Marine One, and six other helicopters descended shortly before 3 p.m. on a grassy field below a residential area of the community of about 900 people.

“I never thought I’d see a president landing in our front yard, you know?” she said.

Across the field, 19-year-olds Austin Kelly and Christopher Ell and others had prepared to watch the president’s landing from the back of a pickup truck on the lawn of Kelly’s Bar.

“I don’t think Cannon Ball’s been noticed ever ‘til today,” Ell said.

At Cannonball Elementary School, the president and first lady met with tribal youths for a roundtable discussion that was closed to the press.

Obama referred to the meeting during his speech, saying the youngsters talked about the challenges of living in two worlds as being both “Native” and “American,” getting personal when he added that he and the first lady also grew up at times “feeling like we were on the outside looking in.” He said the nation must invest in native children, “and that starts from the White House all the way down here.”

While he didn’t mention it during his speech, the White House noted the president’s 2015 budget proposes a more than $3 billion increase over 2009’s level of support to tribal communities, American Indians and Alaska natives.

Obama also stressed the need to create jobs and support small businesses to give young tribal members the chance to live, work and raise families on the reservation. North Dakota boasted the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in April, at 2.6 percent, but Standing Rock’s jobless rate currently hovers at around 60 percent and the poverty rate is roughly 40 percent, tribal officials said this week.

Ell said he’s currently unemployed, working on his GED and trying to get a job at the tribe’s Prairie Nights Casino. Kelly is involved in a church leadership program that has him working with kids and considering a career as a counselor, but right now, “I’m looking toward the military,” he said.

The White House cited a number of economic development initiatives expected to be announced soon, including a proposed rule by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to streamline the approval process for energy development and infrastructure on tribal lands – an issue of particular importance on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota’s booming oil patch.

Yellow Eyes, a stay-at-home mom who is attending Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates for small business management and is trying to start her own fry bread business, said she hoped Obama would place more federal dollars into tribal education.

Obama said improving schools and preparing native youths for college and careers means returning control of Indian education to tribal nations “with additional resources and support so that you can direct your children’s education and reform schools here in Indian Country.”

The White House said an order signed Friday by Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell – who also attended Friday’s event – will shift the role of the Bureau of Indian Education from an operator of schools to more of a resource provider that will deliver technical assistance to tribally controlled schools.

Friendly territory

North Dakota as a whole is unfriendly political territory for Obama, who received 45 percent of the state’s vote in the 2008 election and just 39 percent in 2012.

But he has enjoyed strong support in Indian County, garnering 79 percent of the vote in 2012 in Sioux County, which consists of the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock reservation.

“We love you, Obama!” an audience member yelled during his opening remarks, prompting the president to respond with a finger point, “I love you back!”

Obama paid tribute to the Native Americans in the crowd and the deceased veterans whose burial flags circled overhead, snapping in the stiff wind against a blue sky that opened up shortly before the president spoke.

He also highlighted the resolution of longstanding disputes between the federal government and Indian Country, drawing applause when he noted George Keepseagle of Fort Yates was in the crowd. Keepseagle and his wife, Marilyn, were the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit brought in 1999 by Native American farmers and ranchers who claimed the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them by denying them equal access to loans provided to white farmers. A $760 million settlement was approved in April 2011.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who accompanied the president on Marine One and has introduced legislation to improve the well-being of native children, said the federal government hasn’t made the progress for American Indians that she’d like to see, noting “deplorable” statistics such as a suicide rate more than two and a half times the national average.

She said Obama’s visit “says a whole lot” about his commitment to turning things around for Indian Country.

“You can’t take a problem like this and change it overnight. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and I think he’s made a very good start,” she said. 

Highlights of President Obama’s speech in Cannon Ball on Friday

On his and first lady Michelle Obama’s closed-door roundtable discussion with tribal youths at Cannonball Elementary School:

“Before we came here, Michelle and I sat with an amazing group of young people. I love these young people.  I only spent an hour with them. They feel like my own. And you should be proud of them because they’ve overcome a lot, but they’re strong and they’re still standing, and they’re moving forward. And they’re proud of their culture. But they talked about the challenges of living in two worlds and being both ‘Native’ and ‘American.’ And some bright young people like the ones we met today might look around and sometimes wonder if the United States really is thinking about them and caring about them, and has a place for them, too.

“And when we were talking, 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. But thanks to family and friends, and teachers and coaches and neighbors that didn’t give up on us, we didn’t give up on ourselves. Just like these young people are not giving up on themselves. And we want every young person in America to have the same chance that we had, and that includes the boys and girls here in Indian Country.”

On Standing Rock’s tribal court, which has become a national model:

“My administration has gone further than any in history to strengthen the sovereignty of tribal courts, particularly when it comes to criminal sentencing and prosecuting people who commit violence against women. And Standing Rock has done a terrific job at building a court system that is open and efficient, and delivers justice to your people. So we want to support more tribes as they follow your lead and strengthen justice in our communities. And that includes protecting important rights like the right to vote, because every Native American deserves a voice in our democracy.”

On preserving culture through education, after six students from the only Lakota language immersion school sang for Obama before his address:

“And even as they prepare for a global economy, we want children, like these wonderful young children here, learning about their language and learning about their culture, just like the boys and girls do at Lakota Language Nest here at Standing Rock.  We want to make sure that continues and we build on that success.”

On his first visit to a reservation in 2008 and the relationship between the United States and sovereign tribal nations:

“When I was first running for President, I had the honor of visiting the Crow Nation in Montana. And today I’m proud to be making my first trip to Indian Country as president of the United States.

“I know that throughout history, the United States often didn’t give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved. So I promised when I ran to be a president who’d change that – a president who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty, and upholds treaty obligations, and who works with you in a spirit of true partnership, in mutual respect, to give our children the future that they deserve.”

Emcee keeps crowd laughing during wait for Obama

As emcee, Bobtail Bear had some time to kill before the president and first lady finally arrived at the Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration powwow grounds about 45 minutes later than scheduled.

To pass the time, Bobtail Bear cracked what seemed like a never-ending string of jokes.

“Is it OK if I ask what the president is doing over there?” he deadpanned. “We’ve been waiting for 20 minutes now.”

Bobtail Bear quipped that BIA – Bureau of Indian Affairs – really stood for “Boss Indians Around,” and joked about how Obama’s hair has grayed into his second term as president.

“That’s why I don’t want to be a politician,” he said. “My hair is still pretty black.”

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.