Claiming that his record shows he is more committed than his opponent in the upcoming presidential election to serving Indian country, President Barack Obama has answered questions about some of the major issues facing American Indian citizens and tribes today.
“[With me] as president, you have a voice in the White House,” he tells Indian Country Today Media Network. “We’re moving forward, but there’s more work to do. But we are seeing a turning point in the relationship between our nations, and ultimately our relationship is not just a matter of legislation or a matter of policy. It’s a matter of whether we’re going to live up to our basic values.”
Not only is this the first time President Obama has done a Q&A with the American Indian press, it is believed to be the first time a sitting president of the United States has conducted such an interview with Native media. It’s a first that aligns with the image Obama has worked hard to cultivate in Indian country.
Adopted as “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land” when he was campaigning for president on the Crow Nation reservation in May 2008, he has since hired several Native American staffers, held three annual tribal summits and taken administrative action on multiple long-standing trust and water settlements.
He has also supported and signed pro-tribal legislation, including the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Tribal Law and Order Act and the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership [HEARTH] Act. His record has pleased many tribal leaders; some hail him as one of the best presidents for Indian country in recent history.
This landmark Q&A is the first installment in a series of interviews ICTMN will be conducting this election season with federal, state, local and tribal officials.
Why should American Indians vote for you this time around? What has been your proudest accomplishment to date on behalf of American Indians?
[With me] as president, you have a voice in the White House. Since the earliest days of my administration, we’ve been working hand in hand between our nations to keep that promise through a comprehensive strategy to help meet the challenges facing Native American communities.
That starts with improving the economy and creating jobs. One of the keys to unlocking economic growth on reservations is investments in roads and high-speed rail and high-speed Internet and the infrastructure that will better connect your communities to the broader economy and draw capital and create jobs on tribal lands. That’s why my administration has boosted infrastructure investments through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Reservation Roads Program, and we’ve offered loans to reach reservations with broadband.
We’ve also made critical investments into pressing needs like renovating schools and devoting resources to job training, especially for young people in Indian country. And we’re working with you to restore tribal homelands in order to help you develop your economies. When it comes to creating jobs, closing the opportunity gap, and leaving something better for our future generations, few areas hold as much promise as clean energy. Native American lands hold great potential wind and solar energy resources, and the potential for solar energy is even higher. My administration will continue to invest in our clean energy future to strengthen our economies and our energy security.
But if we’re going to bring real and lasting change for our nations one thing we need to do is make health care more accessible and affordable. We know that as long as Native Americans die of illnesses like tuberculosis, alcoholism, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza at far higher rates than the rest of the population, then we’re going to have to do more to address disparities in health care delivery. The health reform law that I signed, now called Obamacare—which I like because I do care—included the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), which authorizes new programs and services within the Indian Health Service, helping more folks get the care they need.
So we’re making progress. We’re moving forward, but there’s more work to do. But we are seeing a turning point in the relationship between our nations, and ultimately our relationship is not just a matter of legislation or a matter of policy. It’s a matter of whether we’re going to live up to our basic values. It’s a matter of upholding an ideal that has always defined who we are as Americans: e pluribus unum—out of many, one. And I’m confident that if we continue to work together, that we will live up to this simple motto and we will achieve a brighter future for the First Americans and for all Americans.
What does tribal sovereignty mean to you? What is the best way to resolve conflicts between tribal nations and the federal and state governments?
I believe that treaty commitments are paramount law, and I will strive to fulfill these commitments as president. This means providing quality, affordable health care and improving education quality on reservations across America.
As promised, my administration has hosted annual meetings with Native American leaders to ensure that tribal nations have an opportunity to work directly with cabinet members and agency officials to craft a policy agenda together. I also issued an executive order instructing agencies to develop plans for consultation and coordination with tribal governments, which has resulted in historic levels of engagement. Additionally, I have hired Native American personnel at high levels throughout the administration to advise on policies that directly impact tribal communities. Through meaningful dialogue, together we can move toward partnerships in addressing the needs of Indian country.
Obama with Navajo Code Talkers at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2011. (AP Photo)
Do you believe in a clean Carcieri fix? If so, what do you think it would look like? If not, why not?
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Carcieri v. Salazar held that under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 the federal government cannot take land into trust for Indian tribes not under federal jurisdiction in 1934. To address the United States Supreme Court’s decision, for the past two years my budgets have included language reaffirming the Secretary of the Interior’s authority to take land into trust for all federally recognized Indian tribes.
How have you tried to balance federal budgetary spending with the trust responsibility and obligations to tribes called for in the Constitution and treaties? How do you feel about the Bureau of Indian Affairs? Indian Health Service? Do you see a need for reform?
I believe that strong and stable tribal governments built through self-determination are the key to overcoming great challenges. As such, my administration is engaged in a wide range of activities to support tribal self-determination, and my proposed budget increases funding to compensate tribes for the work they perform in managing federal programs under self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts.
Combating crime in Indian country requires cooperative efforts by federal, state and tribal entities. In July 2010, I signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which addresses many of the public safety challenges that confront tribal communities, including increased funding to operate newly constructed detention centers. My budget also proposes increased funds for tribal courts and additional law enforcement officers, coordinates community policing programs to reduce crime and protects natural resources in Indian country.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service are critical to removing obstacles to build and promote tribal self-determination and strong and stable government institutions, while promoting job creation and access to health care. Through Indian affairs programs, tribes can improve the quality of life for their members, and support education, job training and employment opportunities. My proposed budget maintains this commitment by providing $2.5 billion in total budget authority for such services. To build on our commitment to increase access to health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives, my budget provides $4.4 billion for the Indian Health Service, in order to make key investments in clinical services and staffing, tribally operated health programs and health facilities construction.
Do you understand tribal and Indian concerns relating to the Keystone XL pipeline?
My administration is conducting a thorough and rigorous review of the Keystone pipeline. We are weighing many critical issues involved in the decision, including impacts to public health, potential threats to water supplies, climate change and impacts on cultural and natural resources, especially across large areas of Indian country and water sources along the pipeline’s route. These issues, along with American energy security and economic factors, have been and will continue to be closely considered in the administration’s future decisions. On the other hand, my opponent, Governor Romney, has said he would approve the pipeline on day one of his term, regardless of concerns like impacts on communities and the environment.
Do you see a need for more federal economic development opportunities for tribes and reservations to resolve the problem of poverty on reservations?
While we have made progress in restarting job creation—with 4.6 million private sector jobs created over the past 30 months [as of press time]—I believe much more needs to be done to put Americans back to work. While the current economic crisis has challenged all Americans, we know this to be especially true for Indian country, where some reservations face unemployment rates of up to 80 percent. Though the economic challenges of Indian country are significant, I am committed to building strong, prosperous Native American economies.
My proposed budget includes funding and proposals to support business growth and access to credit in Indian country, to continue to expand job creation opportunities, to give all children in Indian country a fair shot at success by improving K-12 education and expanding access to college, and to assist with winter fuel costs. I have also proposed a 10 percent increase from 2012 enacted levels in grants to Indian tribes, Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians and tribal nonprofit organizations that provide employment and training services to unemployed and low-income Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. The additional funding in the coming year will allow grantees to serve more participants and expand their emphasis on helping individuals advance along career pathways.
Obama with his adoptive Crow “parents” at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2011. (AP Photo)
Native American women suffer from domestic violence at some of the highest rates in the United States. And we know that there are countless more victims of domestic violence and sexual assault whose stories may never be told. Some of the abusers of Native American women go unpunished because tribes cannot prosecute non-Indians, even if the offender lives on the reservation and is married to a tribal member.
Romney refuses to stand up to the Republicans in Congress who blocked these crucial improvements to the Violence Against Women Act. I believe that Congress should close the jurisdictional gap in the criminal justice system and provide tribes with the authority to hold offenders accountable for their crimes against Native American women, regardless of the perpetrator’s race. The reauthorization addresses these issues that made it difficult to prosecute abusers on tribal lands in some cases. Tribal courts’ jurisdiction over domestic violence will be recognized, and tribal courts authority to enforce protection orders will be clarified. Congress should act on this today. VAWA provides helpful resources to the tribes, but without addressing the jurisdictional gap, those tools only go so far.