By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009
President Obama on Thursday told what he called the largest gathering of Native American tribal leaders that "you will not be forgotten by this White House," pledging to work with them to address their community's chronic problems with health care, economic development, land management and education.
Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge by bringing the leaders of the 564 federally recognized Native American tribes to Washington during his first year in office.
He began his remarks with an accounting of the historically troubled relationship between the federal government and Indian nations, telling the leaders, "Few have been marginalized for as long by Washington as Native Americans."
"You have every right to wonder why this time will be any different," Obama told the Tribal Nations Conference audience, assembled at the Interior Department.
Soon after, Obama signed a memorandum asking his Cabinet secretaries to outline within 90 days how they intend to improve relations with tribal nations. The memorandum is a follow-up to a Clinton-era executive order that has largely languished.
In the ensuing question-and-answer session, tribal leaders thanked Obama for inviting them to Washington. Several wore traditional attire and spoke at times in the melodic tones of their native languages.
Most had statements for Obama, rather than questions. They asked for his help in working with Congress, in refining federal land-management policies and in ensuring the safe supervision of Superfund waste sites on tribal land.
At times, Obama drew on his own biography as evidence that, at one level, he understood their frustrations and demands. He told the tribal leaders that he was born to a teenage mother and that his father left when he was 2 years old.
"I know what it means to be an outsider," the president said.
Obama promised to help them improve health care, job training and educational opportunities for their community, noting that Native Americans have among the highest dropout rates of any demographic group in the country.
He said the $787 billion stimulus bill he pushed through Congress this year included $3 billion for tribal programs. Of the day's gathering, which also brought together tribal leaders and federal officials to work on specific issues, Obama said, "This session is part of a lasting conversation that is crucial to our future."