President Barack Obama’s million-megawatt smile shined brightest for children and young people on his visit to the Standing Rock Dakota/Lakota Nation.
Upwards of 2,000 tribal members gave the President and First Lady Michelle Obama a warm welcome June 13 in the dance arbor of the tiny village of Cannon Ball for the community’s annual Flag Day Celebration.
The Obamas were treated to a cultural display of song and dance. The two bobbed their heads to the drumbeat as dancers of all ages performed in the arena.
The President said they were honored to be in this “sacred and beautiful place.”
“It’s easy to see why it’s called God’s country,” he said, before turning his attention to young people.
“I realize that a powwow isn’t just about celebrating the past. It’s also about looking to the future and keeping sacred traditions alive for the next generation, for these beautiful children,” said Mr. Obama. “And I think we can follow the lead of Standing Rock’s most famous resident, Chief Sitting Bull, who said: “‘Let us put our minds together to see what we can build for our children.’”
Quoting the 19th Century Lakota patriot and visionary leader brought generous applause, one of the two dozen times he was interrupted with crowd approval during his 12 minute talk.
“Let’s put our minds together to improve our schools,” said the President. “Because our children deserve a world-class education that prepares them for college and careers.”
Following up on initiatives to improve tribal education, Mr. Obama endorsed the idea of returning control of Indian education to tribal nations, along with additional resources and support.
Have the Same Chance
Upon arriving by helicopter in the town of 875, the First Couple met privately at the community school with a half-dozen Standing Rock students who talked about their experiences growing up on the rez.
“Michelle and I sat with an amazing group,” said Mr. Obama. “I love these young people. I only spent an hour with them. They feel like my own. And you should be proud of them— because they’ve overcome a lot. But they’re strong and they’re still standing, and they’re moving forward.”
The President said bright young people, like the ones he met, might wonder if the United States really cares about them. He said it was a feeling he and Michelle could identify with.
“We grew up at times feeling like we were on the outside looking in. But thanks to family and friends, and teachers and coaches and neighbors who didn’t give up on us, we didn’t give up on ourselves,” he said. “Just like these young people are not giving up on themselves. And we want every young person in America to have the same chance that we had —and that includes the boys and girls here in Indian Country.”
Believe in Them
The Obamas were hosted by Standing Rock’s Tribal Chairman, Dave Archambault II and his wife Nicole. Before election in 2012, Archambault directed a workforce training program at United Tribes Technical College, bringing leadership and experience to the work of recruiting and training young people for the regional jobs market. Highlighting youth and education, and developing a better working relationship with the Federal government were at the forefront of his expectations. The President’s message was on the mark.
“There’s no denying that for some Americans the deck has been stacked against them, sometimes for generations,” the President said. “That’s been the case for many Native Americans. But if we’re working together, we can make things better. We’ve got a long way to go. But if we do our part, I believe that we can turn the corner. We can break old cycles. We can give our children a better future.” Mr. Obama said he is certain that can happen after talking to the young people at Cannon Ball.
“I know they can succeed. I know they’ll be leaders not just in Indian Country, but across America. We’ve got to invest in them and believe in them and love them, and that starts from the White House all the way down here,” he said.
Mr. Obama moved in among the dancers giving hugs, shaking hands, holding a baby and posing for photos. He noted that the root of the Lakota word for children is “wakan,” meaning sacred.
“That’s what young people are—they’re sacred.
They’re sacred to your families and your tribe and to this nation,” he said. “I will do everything I can to make sure that our country has a place for everyone, including every single young person here…and that you’re getting the support and encouragement you need to go as far as your hard work and your talent will take you. That is my commitment to you—to every single young person here.”
During his visit the President also paid tribute to veterans in the audience and those who have walked on, and whose flags were proudly displayed at the Flag Day Celebration.
All three members of the North Dakota congressional delegation were there, along with the North Dakota governor, the Secretary of the Interior, the assistant secretary for the BIA, and the director of the Indian Health Service. Many tribal leaders from the Great Plains region attended, including the chairs of all the tribes in North Dakota.
United Tribes Technical College alumni and staff present for the once-in-a-lifetime event included the college’s interim president and interim chancellor. Other tribal college leaders represented Sint. Gleska University, Sitting Bull College and Turtle Mountain Community College.
The historic visit was Mr. Obama’s first to Indian Country since becoming president. In 2008 as a candidate, he had visited the Crow Nation in eastern Montana.