The president of the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET), one of the largest regional Indian and tribally focused organizations in the country, thinks a visit from the President of the United States to a tribe or reservation would brightly shine a spotlight on the political, economic, and cultural realities facing tribes today.
“I would be so grateful if the president would show the initiative,” said USET President Brian Patterson in an interview after the organization’s annual Impact Week in Washington, D.C. in early February. “While the president so far has a report card of progress, we have yet to begin a dialogue on a variety of unmet and unidentified needs in Indian country. That is a crucial conversation we must have.”
The last time Obama visited a reservation was during his 2008 campaign for president. Many Indians wanted to see him visit an Indian community during his 2012 campaign, but that did not happen. His former chief of staff, Pete Rouse, told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2010 that another tribal visit by Obama was a possibility, but, to date, only lower administration officials have done so, and the president while in office has kept his meetings with tribal leaders inside the Beltway.
Tribal leaders would like to see the possibility Rouse mentioned become a reality during the president’s second term, Patterson said, as it would serve to drive home all the efforts that USET has been working to achieve—including real trust responsibility from the federal government that can’t be siphoned away through sequestration, Indian empowerment and nation building, and a renewed emphasis on a congressional Carcieri fix to an unpopular 2009 Supreme Court land-into-trust decision that has caused economic uncertainty among tribes and the country as a whole.
While an official invitation from USET to the White House has yet to be sent, Patterson said that Indian officials within the government, including Charles Galbraith, Navajo, and Jodi Gillette, Standing Rock Sioux, at the White House and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, Chickasaw, at the Bureau of Indian Affairs are aware of tribal desires for a visit from Obama. He also said an invitation is open to First Lady Michelle Obama. And he noted that if Obama did visit a USET tribe, he would be following in the footsteps of legislative and administration officials who have visited reservations and who spoke and met with tribal leaders during the Impact Week proceedings.
The push for a presidential visit mirrors the outreach that USET and many other tribal organizations have done with members of Congress in recent years to try to educate them on tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and tribal-federal trust relations.
Patterson, a citizen of the Oneida Indian Nation who has led USET for seven years, said that one of the main outcomes he’d like to see gain steam via these interactions is a “legacy of empowerment of tribal leaders and citizens,” which was a main theme discussed at this year’s Impact Week. Along those lines, he said USET strongly supports the “Idle No More” grassroots movement that has made progress across the nation this year among tribal citizens who are working to infuse Native sentiments and understanding into the larger mainstream culture and political scene.
“We want to harness the spirit of our people to empower our people,” Patterson said. “The vision of Indian country is coming into play everywhere and every day.”
Part of that vision involves not only meeting with federal elected officials, but also getting them to see issues from tribal perspectives, as well as helping them to understand that tribal concepts are rooted in the fabric of America, including within the U.S. Constitution.
While Obama seems to be doing better on that front than many of his presidential predecessors, many current Congress members are not faring so well.
“We don’t run off of the assumption that every member of Congress has a deep understanding of federal Indian policy, of tribal history, of the United States’ history as related to Indian country—the majority of them don’t know that,” said Kitcki Carroll, director of USET and a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, in an interview.
“We, collectively, of Indian country have a responsibility to make sure members of Congress understand their responsibility, regardless of whether they have recognized tribes in their states or not,” Carroll added. “Indians have already taken the time to understand the way the system works and the systemic problems that litter the current federal trust relationship with tribes. And we’re being forced to spend significant resources to keep from losing what we have – never mind adding to what we have.”
The problem with the current federal-tribal trust model where officials in Congress are elected to protect the rights of their states, Carroll said, is that the same officials are supposed to protect the sovereignty rights of Indian country. “When not in conflict, you don’t have an issue; when in conflict, you absolutely do have an issue,” he said.
Reducing these conflicts involves outreach not only to Congress members, but also to state political players, social justice advocacy organizations, and to the general public, Patterson said. And, of course, continued outreach to the Obama administration, which has taken some critical steps to ensuring that future federal officials within the Executive Branch do not make the same mistakes toward tribes as have happened in the past. As examples, Patterson cited ongoing efforts on trust reform at the Interior Department and the recent modification of the Stafford Act to strengthen the nation-to-nation relationship between the U.S. and tribes during emergency and disaster situations.
“It is critical that we take full advantage of the opportunities over the next four years to gain some additional ground that we can build on for years to come,” Carroll said, noting that judicial and legislative challenges to tribal sovereignty are alive and well, so a friendly White House is a big plus in contemporary times.
In all, the positives to date under the Obama administration – even without a presidential visit, yet, and even given the current challenges from the other branches of government – leave Patterson feeling optimistic. “I am impressed by the president’s track record and comments on tribal issues,” Patterson said. “His platform uniquely fits Indian country’s platform in almost all respects. Now we have to hold him accountable.” And if that happens on Indian ground, all the better.