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White House conference was historic event
By David M. Gipp, United Tribes Technical College President

23 November 2009

BISMARCK (UTN) - I was honored to attend the gathering in Washington, DC November 5 when almost all of the nation’s tribal leaders met with President Barack Obama. This was the first such meeting with a President since Bill Clinton hosted one 15 years ago.

      But this one was even more comprehensive, and for that reason historic. Close to 90 percent of the leaders of the 564 federally recognized tribes came together as one group to meet with the President and members of his Cabinet.

      I had the privilege of being an honored guest to observe this White House/Tribal Nations Conference.

      The President said this meeting was the beginning step in fulfilling a promise he made before being elected. In his remarks he said he was committed to doing more than just listening to Native people. He wanted this to go beyond mere ‘lip service’ or ‘window dressing.’ He said he wanted a dialogue that would produce effective results.

      He said, “I get it. I'm on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider…Even though our experiences are different; I understand what it means to be on the outside looking in. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House.”

      The President also said he wanted to meet annually with Tribal Nations and this effort would be a time of “righting many of the wrongs of the past.” He instructed his advisers to begin working more closely with tribes and tribal leaders to accomplish this.

      For the better part of that day, tribal leaders worked in groups with Cabinet members, led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, on a wide range of topics, including treaty obligations and tribal sovereignty, economic development and natural resources, public safety, housing, education and health.

      Tribal leaders outlined their key concerns: Standing Rock Chairman Charles Murphy covered public safety, including the need to bolster law enforcement. Oglala Tribal President Theresa Two Bulls emphasized the need for unity and upholding treaty rights. Rosebud Chairman Rodney Bordeaux described the needs in health care and education. Three Affiliated Chairman Marcus Levings urged more support for housing and less red tape in approving tribal leases for mineral exploration and development. All did a great job. I was very proud to hear their remarks.

      The conference was a step toward fulfilling Obama's promise to uphold nation-to-nation relations with the tribes and open a ‘new chapter of change.’

      The President's concluding remarks were shortened by the urgent need for him to attend to the Fort Hood military base shootings, which had occurred earlier in the day. Those of us attending the conference had not heard the news until it came from him.

      The conference ended with statements from Kim Teehee and Jodi Archambault Gillette, two of the President’s top advisers for tribal domestic policy and inter-governmental affairs respectively. A report will be published and follow-up is expected for continued access and involvement by and for tribal leaders.

      After what seems like such a long time on the outside, I was heartened by seeing this President welcome tribal leaders into the corridors of American power. Now let’s see what we can accomplish.

The text of President Obama's Letter