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UPDATED: Obama, First Lady to visit Standing Rock next week

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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are headed to Cannon Ball, N.D., June 13 to visit the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the White House announced Thursday.

Obama will be the first sitting president to visit Indian Country since 1999 when Bill Clinton went to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

Speaking Thursday morning to the Tribal Consultation Conference in Bismarck, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II said the effort to bring the president to Standing Rock, which is situated in both North and South Dakota, began even before his election last September, with tribal council members having passed resolutions requesting a presidential visit.

“It’s almost numbing to know that it’s actually happening,” Archambault said. “You don’t know the pride that we have in that we’re able to share.”

The Obamas will join Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who is a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, for the visit. Heitkamp said she is glad the president is visiting during the Flag Day Celebration Wacipi powwow, which Heitkamp first attended about 30 years ago.

“I’m glad he’s coming to an event where we honor our veterans and our Native American veterans,” Heitkamp said.

Scott Davis, a Standing Rock tribal member and executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, was also excited for Obama to attend the powwow.

“I think our president’s going to see a huge part of our culture in our powwow, our celebration in honor of the veterans,” he said. “And he probably will see the largest flag-raising celebration in the state.”

The visit to North Dakota will be Obama’s first as president and also make him the 14th sitting president to visit the state. His previous appearance was in 2008 when he spoke at the state Democratic-NPL convention in Grand Forks as a presidential candidate.

The last president visit to North Dakota was George W. Bush, who visited Fargo in 2005 while promoting a Social Security reform proposal. Clinton came to the Grand Forks Air Force Base following the flood of 1997.

For the kids

About 900 to 1,000 people live in Cannon Ball, the majority of them under age 18, Archambault said.

The children will share their experiences, how they’ve overcome adversity and give Obama ideas on what he can do to help, Archambault said.

Archambault added that Michelle Obama’s presence “shows there’s a real concern for our children.” The first lady has been an activist for children, including her Let’s Move campaign dedicated to fighting childhood obesity.

“That means a lot, because that’s our future,” he said.

Heitkamp, who has sponsored legislation supporting the rights and protection of both Native American women and children, echoed Archambault’s remarks.

“I think it is a time to renew the president’s commitment to changing outcomes for Native American kids,” Heitkamp said. “I think it made it very special to the citizens and children that the president’s wife will be there.”

President’s perspective

In addition to the other activities, Obama will speak with members of the tribe and tribal government about issues on the reservation. Archambault said Standing Rock’s top concern is a lack of housing, though drugs are becoming a bigger problem.

“It scares me, because I can see people changing right in front of my eyes,” he said. “And it’s real, and it’s there, and we have to do something about it.”

Archambault said Obama’s visit to the reservation with two years remaining in office is promising for Standing Rock and Indian Country as a whole.

“He’s coming while … he has time left to do something,” Archambault told the conference. “It may not solve all the problems in Indian Country. It may not fix all the wrongdoings that have been done to Indian Country. But I believe that it can bring hope. I believe that when something like this happens, it’ll touch a lot of people’s lives, and it’s a blessing.”

Obama published an op-ed piece Thursday with the publication Indian Country Today regarding his upcoming visit to Standing Rock.

In the piece, which the White House also distributed, the president mentioned his first trip to Indian Country six years ago when he visited the Crow Nation in Montana as a presidential candidate. He also wrote of his plans for his visit to Standing Rock.

“I’m going to hear from as many people as possible — ranging from young people to tribal leaders — about the successes and challenges they face every day,” he wrote. “And I’ll announce new initiatives to expand opportunity in Indian Country by growing tribal economies and improving Indian education.”

Obama also wrote of the White House Tribal Nations Conference he hosts every year.

David Gipp, chancellor of United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck and an enrolled Standing Rock Sioux member, attended the event last November, introducing Attorney General Eric Holder as a speaker. 

“The president has clearly set not just a record but a precedent by giving importance to Indian affairs across the land by having these meetings and directly speaking to tribal leaders,” he said.