When word came that president Barack Obama was going to have an impromptu meeting with Mayor Michael Bloomberg Aug. 27, many in Indian country were hopeful.
Hopeful that a president who has sometimes made it his business to call attention to issues tinged by race, religion, and other “hot button” forces would talk to the New York City leader about a racially-charged comment he had recently made involving Native Americans.
The hopes ranged from small – recognition – to large – getting the president to secure an apology. No matter their size, they were quashed.
Instead, Obama – who has some- times made a point of publicly sup- porting Indian issues – engaged Bloomberg in a conversation about the economy, and played a round of golf. Adding insult to injury, some New York papers have cited anonymous sources saying that Obama was feeling out Bloomberg for a job in his administration.
When the golf game was over, they moved on.
Many in Indian country have been unable and unwilling to move on from a series of Old West-inspired musings offered by Bloomberg to the New York Daily News in an article published Aug. 13: “I’ve said this to David pater- son, I said, ‘You know, get yourself a cowboy hat and a shotgun. … If there’s ever a great video, it’s you standing in the middle of the New York State Thruway saying, you know, ‘Read my lips – the law of the land is this, and we’re going to enforce the law.’”
Bloomberg was talking about how he felt the New York governor should handle a quagmire involving a new state law taxing cigarettes sold on Indian lands – a law that tribes say breaks their treaties and other sovereign rights.
No matter the tax conflict, the problem that many Indians have had with Bloomberg’s words is that the imagery he referred to already happened – quite literally and pain- fully. In American history, Old West settlers, colonists and others literally took their shotguns out, and killed Indians, while also harming their cultures and languages and stealing their lands.
When the conquest was over, they moved on.
Bloomberg and his aides know his words were controversial; they have seen the protests at City Hall. They have heard from respected organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians, which has called for an apology. They have fielded dozens of calls from reporters who have asked for comment.
Despite the pressure, Bloomberg has not responded. His office has said his controversial words are not what the situation is about. Paterson’s office, meanwhile, distanced the governor from the remarks, saying they “do not reflect” his position.
It is against that backdrop that Obama met with Bloomberg at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., with Native American hope springing eternal.
Before the four-hour course meeting, officials in Obama’s administration had been updated on the tribal conflict, lending credence to the notion that the president could have been briefed and prepared to ask Bloomberg to rectify his gaffe. The president’s past commitment, including last year’s White House Tribal Nations Summit, also inspired hope.
After the round of golf, it quickly became clear that the moment had passed without attention. When asked if the president brought up the issue with the mayor, and if he had a position, spokesman Shin Inouye said the White House would offer “no comment.” The White House has not issued any statements supporting an apology or other action.
Pool reporters covering the president were not given access to Obama and Bloomberg on the day of the meeting, so they were unable to directly ask them questions regarding the matter. No mainstream outlets that do have access to the leaders have posed questions about the controversy to them.
To be fair, the White House and Obama often choose not to weigh in on a host of controversial issues, especially those involving race.
But not always.
Obama famously waded last summer into the controversy when Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., who is black, was arrested by a white police officer at his home. As a result of the president’s attention, a “beer summit” was later held at the White House between Gates and the officer who arrested him.
The president said he considered the situation to be a “teach- able moment” that he hoped could improve relations between minorities and police.
In that case, a reporter from the mainstream media was granted access to ask Obama the question that led to his support for Gates. Indian news outlets, no matter the political party in power, have never been granted access in a similar fashion.
Obama also recently weighed in on the proposed building of a Muslim mosque at the Ground Zero site in New York City. Despite knowing the issue was controversial, he supported the idea that a mosque could be built at the site. Some political observers hailed him for his willingness to present another “teachable moment” regardless of political calculation.
In both the Gates and mosque scenarios, the president received flak from political enemies, and some Democratic supporters said he could have cost them votes in an election year.
Philip Deloria, an associate dean at the University of Michigan and Native scholar, said political realities are increasingly complicating moral issues for Obama, which can be especially disconcerting for Indians who have faced more than their share of moral injustices. He said the president is probably quite wary of presenting another learning lesson – this one centered on an even smaller minority – given the potential political ramifications.
“From a purely political point of view, Obama should not comment, or try to make a teachable moment out of any of this stuff. From Skip Gates to the mosque, these things don’t really play that well for him,” Deloria said.
“Of course, from a moral or ethical point of view, it would be great to have a national leader who could weigh in with some gravitas on issues like this. And I’m not saying I’m representing a tribal point of view, but one can imagine an even stronger desire to have a national leader who steps up to the plate and educates the nation on things like sovereignty and treaty rights.”
Deloria added that Obama has sometimes played into the idea that he is willing to go to bat for Indians, which is probably why he sometimes lets certain ones down.
Even given the current political landscape, some said Obama must be willing to forgo
political calculations, especially since Indian issues tend to be bi-partisan.
“I think it would be very helpful for him to speak out on the dehumanizing impact of the mascots and stereotyping of Indian and Native people,” said Eric Eberhard, an Indian law professor with Seattle University Law School. “I certainly hope that he will find a time and place to make it plain to everyone that the entire nation is diminished and dishonored by this kind of talk and behavior from anyone and particularly from those who are elected to positions of public trust.”
Robert Williams, director of the Indigenous peoples Law and policy program at the University of Arizona, said there is a federal trust responsibility issue at stake as well – an area the president has said he wants to improve. “The tribes in New York are under protection of the United States federal government under the Constitution, and that per- haps is the most important les- son someone like mayor bloom- berg needs to be taught by the president of the United States.”
Williams believes the situation isn’t all that different from when past presidents, acting on a strong federal interest, faced down southern governors and racist local law enforcement officials whose actions and words threatened racial violence against blacks as a minority group exercising what they thought were their rights under U.S. law.
Jack Trope, director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, put the brakes on a bit, saying there is a need for Indians to be strategic about their requests for presidential intervention. In the Bloomberg case, he said Obama should “perhaps” weigh in, but he noted that there are a plethora of other crucial Indian issues that need desperate attention.
Robert miller, a legal scholar with the Lewis & Clark Law School, offered his own thoughts on “teachable moments” – and the missed one in this instance – saying that perhaps the greatest lesson learned will belong to Indians.
“We are under the radar, and we have to fight to overcome that. It should not be okay to slur and slander tribal governments and Indian peoples with- out consequences the same as for other groups.”