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How the stories of Native American youths made Obama cry in the Oval Office

Obama took students from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe out for pizza in Washington. (Martin H. Simon/EPA)
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This post has been updated.

When President Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation in June, he and first lady Michelle Obama emerged stunned and emotional from a meeting with six students who spoke of lives affected by homelessness, alcoholism, poverty and suicide.

"I love these young people," Obama said shortly after meeting them. "I only spent an hour with them. They feel like my own."

The Obamas emerged from the private conversation at a school in Cannon Ball, N.D., "shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking," Obama said.

The meeting spurred Obama to tell his administration to aggressively build on efforts to overhaul the Indian educational system and focus on improving conditions for Native American youths.

"It’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office," Obama, speaking at the conference, said about speaking to his staff about the plight of the children he met. "I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job. It is not very often where I get choked up, so they knew I was serious about this."

The administration unveiled a set of reports, programs and other initiatives to help Native American young people at the White House's sixth annual Tribal Nations Conference. They include a National Tribal Youth Network, which will provide peer support to young people, a gathering of tribal youths at the White House next year and efforts to help children prepare for college and career.

The White House also presented a report stating that Native American youths and their education system are in a "state of emergency," due in part to past "misguided federal policies," and that the educational, socioeconomic, health and other issues facing young people on reservations are "nothing short of a national crisis." Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Native Americans ages 15 to 24, and more than one-third of Native American and Alaska Native children live in poverty, according to federal statistics cited in the report.

"It is very clear that the status quo is not acceptable," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

In June, Jewell announced a plan to transition control of schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education to tribes. One third of those schools are in disrepair, Jewell said. Native American children lag behind on test scores and have extremely low graduation rates. The report calls for increasing tribal control of the educational system, providing student support services in schools, expanding suicide prevention efforts and bringing technology into the classroom, and some efforts are underway.

"I know there's a problem, the president knows it, (Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan knows it," she said. "We are committed to working with tribal leaders and communities to do something about it.”

Obama visited Standing Rock, which is in both North and South Dakota, to tout the strides his administration made with Native American tribes and unveil new economic and educational initiatives. But officials said the meeting with the six students and Obama's interaction with about a dozen others at Standing Rock, where at least half of students drop out of school, cemented Obama's desire to make  improving Indian education a priority.

"We were moved because they were like Malia and Sasha -- just as smart, just as hopeful, just as beautiful," Obama said.

"But at their core, there was a nagging doubt that they would have the opportunities that my daughters had. And nothing gets me more frustrated than when I hear that. Nothing gets me angrier than when I get a sense that our young people early in life are already feeling like opportunities are foreclosed to them -- because that's not who we are,"  he said.

As Obama sat with about 20 students at the tribe's Flag Day celebration, he asked them about Shoni Schimmel, a Native American women's basketball player. Obama then told the students that they should "come play on my court," according to Standing Rock chairman Dave Archambault II.

Last month, 18 students spent three days in Washington at Obama's behest, visiting the National Museum of the American Indian, attending a conference on Native American youths at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and going to a Washington Wizards game. The group spent two days at the White House, visiting the basketball court (no games were played), getting a tour of the Oval Office and eating lunch at a Washington pizza place with the president and first lady.

"Someone as big as the president of the United States cares about us," said Shayla Gayton, a freshman at Purdue University who came to Washington with the group. Gayton wants to be a psychologist after seeing how the deaths of two friends — one in a drunk-driving accident, another by suicide — affected her and her friends. "It was something that was really hopeful."

Obama's visit to Standing Rock was his first to Indian country as a president; he visited the Crow Nation in Montana during his 2008 campaign. He is the first president to visit Native American land since Bill Clinton in 1999; before him it was Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"President Obama's visit to Cannon Ball was historic," said Timothy Q. Purdon, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota. "It now looks like it could lead to a historically positive impact on the current generation of American Indian youth."

The administration also announced plans to improve infrastructure, expanding access to health care and ensuring that federal contractors hire Native Americans. While the conference, and initiatives that will be announced, have the weight of the president behind them, they also illustrate federal spending constraints and the sheer amount of money that it will take to fix decades of endemic poverty and substandard education on Indian reservations.

"The reality is we don't yet have a budget" for 2015, Jewell said, and it is "difficult to say if we have the funding" until it is passed. The administration asked for $2.6 billion for Indian affairs, or $33.6 million more than it received in 2014.

Jewell said it will take more than $1 billion to fix schools that "are falling down." She said the administration is exploring public-private partnerships and working with philanthropies such as the Kellogg Foundation, which has funded educational reform efforts.

Tribes are also trying to become more self-sufficient, but past betrayals by the federal government and decades of crippling poverty have made trying to break away a daunting, if not impossible, task.

"We’ll hear them say, 'We know we're going to have to figure out a path forward for our people that doesn’t involve depending on the federal government, but how do you do that when you start in the hole?' " asked Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who has long been active in Native American issues.

The attorney general’s Advisory Committee on American Indian and Alaska Native Children Exposed to Violence released a 120-page report two weeks ago after conducting four public hearings this year – in North Dakota, Arizona, Florida and Alaska. The report made 31 wide-ranging recommendations, but the overriding theme was to increase federal spending for the “vastly under-resourced programs” for American Indian and Alaska Native children.

Former North Dakota senator Byron L. Dorgan (D), who co-chaired the 13-member committee with Iroquois singer and child advocate Joanne Shenandoah, said that the U.S. government’s responsibility to Indian nations requires the provision of basic governmental services on reservations. But the funding for Indian reservations is in the discretionary portion of the federal budget, leaving vital programs underfunded.

“This should be mandatory funding,” Dorgan told The Post. “If you have a treaty and laws, how do you describe it as discretionary funding?”

Dorgan said that children on reservations are growing up in Third World conditions, in dilapidated housing mostly built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development decades ago.

Since the late 1990s, the Justice Department has been a key source of funding for tribal justice programs. But funding has been decreasing in recent years. Justice funding for a grant that provides the most services to children exposed to violence dropped from $25 million in fiscal 2010 to $5 million in 2014.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Interior Department, is in charge of providing funding for tribal court systems. But the report found that the funding “is far too low” and should be brought into line with spending levels on court systems in the rest of the country.

The Obama administration has, however, settled longstanding lawsuits with some of the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes. In September – in the largest settlement with a single American Indian tribe – the administration agreed to pay the Navajo Nation $554 million to settle claims that the U.S. government has mismanaged funds and natural resources on the Navajo reservation for decades. Some of the claims between the U.S. government and the Navajo Nation, located in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, dated back more than 50 years.

The administration has made several other multimillion-dollar agreements with tribes since 2009 to settle longstanding grievances of Native Americans.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. spoke about the success that three tribes have had in implementing a historic provision of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization in 2013.

The provision, which was opposed by most Republican lawmakers, extended tribal prosecution authority over certain non-Indian perpetrators of domestic violence for the first time in more than 35 years. Since three pilot projects began on the Pascua Yaqui, Tulalip Tribes and Umatilla reservations, more than 20 criminal cases have been charged by tribal prosecutors against non-Indian domestic violence offenders, and several have been convicted.

But the federal government did not provide any additional funding to the tribes to take all the measures required to update their court systems to implement the new law,  according to tribal leaders.

"We pay for our own police, we pay for our own members to be incarcerated. We're paying for non-Indians to be incarcerated," said Deborah Parker, a board member of the Tulalip Tribe in Washington state. "We're paying for prosecutors and public defenders."