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Forum editorial: President can make a difference

It’s been a long time (if ever) that a sitting U.S. president visited a North Dakota American Indian reservation. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will make history today with their trip to the Standing Rock Reservation in south-central North Dakota; not only because of the visit itself but also because the presidential spotlight will help illuminate problems and pathologies that plague Indian country.

The problems – from addiction to child abuse to malnutrition to violence to education failures – have needed attention for generations. In recent years, the dangers faced by young children have made troubling headlines, and federal law enforcement and elected federal officials have directed more attention to the tribes, often confronting resistance from tribal governments and federal Indian agencies.

The president can’t solve problems simply by being at Standing Rock. But the attention that he and his office bring to the situation can open doors. The U.S. Justice Department, in the form of more help for the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office, additional FBI presence in the state and pressure on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to clean up its act can make a difference if a focused, comprehensive effort is made.

North Dakota’s U.S. senators, Heidi Heitkamp, D, and John Hoeven, R, both serve on the Indian Affairs Committee, and both have been forces to reckon with when it comes to getting serious about addressing problems in Indian communities, in particular the welfare of at-risk children. Heitkamp was instrumental in convincing the president to visit a North Dakota reservation.

Additionally, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., announced earlier this week that a committee of the House would take a hard look at the conditions on reservations and gaps in federal native policies.

It appears the president’s visit in tandem with congressional action and federal law enforcement focus, comprise a nonpartisan approach to problems that surely are not political. It is vital that key players in state and federal governments and people of good will on reservations collaborate without the fog of partisanship. That might be a tough call for some in North Dakota who believe this president is always wrong. But that sort of partisan non-think should be banished from the process of improving lives in Indian country.

We welcome the president and first lady to North Dakota. It’s an opportunity for them to learn about reservation life. It’s an opportunity for North Dakotans to see a president who has taken the time to travel to a place where his influence can make a difference.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.