WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, adopted as “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land” by the Crow Tribe in 2008, will be leader of the free world for four more years, and Native Americans now eagerly anticipate his vision for a strong and progressive tribal agenda in his second term.
The president’s win came earlier than many political analysts expected on election night, as he defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who had expressed support for tribal sovereignty and self-determination during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency. Several swing states that Obama needed to win, including Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, came through for him in the end.
Many Native Americans went to bat for Obama during his long run for re-election, with some making convincing arguments that he has been the best president ever for Indian country. Some tribes and individual Indians also offered major donations to his campaign.
During his first term, Obama signed into law the Tribal Law and Order Act, the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, water and trust settlements, the Helping Expedite and Advance Responsible Tribal Homeownership (HEARTH) Act, and his administration worked for improved federal-tribal policy, including asking for legislative changes that would increase the power of tribes to request aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Obama also expressed support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, supported economic development on reservations, hired several American Indians to serve in his administration, regularly met with tribal leaders, and his Department of the Interior worked on reforming the federal Indian trust system.
Of late, the president has been working to get tribal jurisdiction portions of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) through Congress, and his administration has pressed for a clean Carcieri legislative fix that has been elusive since early 2009.
“[With me] as president, you have a voice in the White House,” Obama told Indian Country Today Media Network in a first-of its-kind interview with the Native press in October. “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.”
Obama also specifically mentioned Native Americans in his victory speech as part of his overall discussion of the future of the nation.
At the same time, all Obama did was not popular with all parts of Indian country. In particular, some Indians felt that his administration shortchanged Indians in its negotiation of the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement. Some have also said he needs to focus on increased reforms at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, especially given a series of recent missteps on federal laws involving tribes.
Others were disappointed that the president has not visited a reservation since his first campaign for president in 2008, and that he has not made a verbal apology to Indians for historical sins of America’s past. Whether he has done enough to support tribal economic and energy development has also been a major topic of contention that has been highlighted by Republican Indian affairs leaders in Congress.
Despite the shortfalls in some areas, Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker and supporter of the president, said Obama’s win translates to a “big win” for Indian country. “Right off the bat, I’d say he has the political capital to demand that Congress pass the Senate’s VAWA bill,” he said. “Speaker [John] Boehner will have to swallow that bitter pill.”
In terms of what to expect in a second-term agenda, Stearns said he anticipates soon seeing Obama support a major Indian energy bill, and he added that he would not be surprised if the president finds a highly qualified Native American lawyer to appoint to a federal judgeship.
“Indian country will be a major beneficiary of Obama’s second term,” said Tol Foster, a professor of American Indian Studies at Marquette University. “Second terms are opportunities for presidents to enact reforms internal to the executive branch as well as policies that are less politically expedient. Obama will be trying to establish his legacy, and I believe he considers federal support of Native America to be part of that legacy.”
Derek Bailey, former chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said he wants the president to continue his commitment to strengthening the government-to-government relationship between tribal nations and the United States, moving beyond the tribal consultation process and into the implementation phase. He’d also like to see a quickened response time from the federal government on both pending and future tribal land-into-trust applications, and he asks Obama to strongly push a legislative solution that would fix the unpopular U.S. Supreme Court Carcieri decision.
Lastly, Bailey said he would like the president to “build upon the successful passage of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, and truly begin meeting the health needs and care of our tribal citizens.”
A. Gay Kingman, director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, said that tribes “will now be able to keep the momentum on the progress we have made these last four years.” She added that several tribes are now strategizing on federal Indian budget plans, tribal taxation, education, and many other issues that they want the president to better address.
Even Indians who did not support the president in his campaign were confident that his second term would hold promise for American Indians.
“I think Indian country will do okay,” said John Tahsuda, a tribal lobbyist with Navigators Global and adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign on Indian issues.
Tahsuda, a Kiowa tribal citizen, had kind words to say about Kevin Washburn, the president’s recently-confirmed Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at Interior: “I have known Kevin for a long time. He is smart, and his heart is in the right place. I think there will be some good things done under his leadership.”
“Last night affirmed the status quo in the House, the Senate and the White House,” added Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, who was successful in his bid for re-election and is Chickasaw. “While this leaves some serious questions concerning how we tackle long-term problems, I believe it will be good for Indian country. Indian country fared very well in the 112th Congress, and with no changes to the balance of power, I expect Indian country to continue to fare well even as we are faced with tough fiscal decisions.”
Sources close to the administration say to expect a fourth White House Tribal Nations Conference later this fall where the president will discuss his Indian country agenda for the next four years.