Updated: 9:29 p.m.
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.”
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. They were expected to hear about the challenges facing the young people, what it’s like to grow up in Indian Country and their hopes for the future, according to the White House.
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.
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.
Transcript: Click here to read President Obama's remarks at Standing Rock
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