The Obama administration this week proposed sweeping changes to federal tribal-land leasing rules that had not been touched in 50 years. Obama nominated a Native American to the federal bench, signed a law renewing the Indian Health Care Act and settled a tribal royalties lawsuit that had dragged on through three administrations.
"Obama has done better for tribes than the others, except for the Nixon administration," said Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Republican senator from Colorado. President Richard Nixon advocated tribal self-determination and opposed the termination of American Indian tribes that had been occurring since the mid-1940s.
Against that backdrop, Obama on Friday speaks for the third time with the nation's 565 tribal leaders in Washington. The annual Tribal Nations Conference will allow Obama to boast about how he's kept his 2008 campaign promises for the 5.2 million American Indians and Alaska natives in the U.S. It also is a chance for tribal leaders to lay out what else they expect.
"We've made historic progress on many fronts but we recognize, as you recognize, that we have a lot more work to do," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said as he opened the gathering.
American Indians have been both "well-served" and "hurt" by other administrations, said Bill John Baker, principal chief of the largest Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Obama has gone beyond lip service, Baker said, and "backed up his words with actions that have made a positive impact on the lives of Native people."
But with the accomplishments come greater expectations from a people whose rates of unemployment, violent crime, youth suicides, poverty and high school dropouts are significantly higher than in the rest of the country.
"It's two steps forward, one step backward," Campbell said. "No matter what we do, we have to find a way for Indians to be self-sufficient and not dependent on the federal government, except for those services required by treaty in the old days."
The administration still must implement laws Obama signed and fund lawsuit settlements. Also, tribes want to see the administration push legislation through Congress to get around a 2009 Supreme Court decision limiting the interior secretary's authority to accept land into federal trust on behalf of Indian tribes. The decision has held up economic development for tribes.
Salazar told the leaders Friday the court's decision was a "wrong decision" and needs to be fixed.
"We still need improvements in roads, bridges, schools, hospitals as well as addressing the digital, electrical and clean water disparities that hamper developmentand quality of life issues for our people," Baker said.
Thomas Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, said for now he's giving Obama a B-minus. He notes that the president hasn't issued an executive order, as Clinton and Bush did, reminding agencies to provide money to tribal colleges.
Still, Obama has assembled a respectable bragging list. He has:
-Signed the Tribal Law and Order Act to improve law enforcement and public safety in tribal communities.
-Renewed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and made it permanent.
-Settled the class-action Cobell lawsuit over federal government mismanagement of royalties for oil, gas, timber and grazing leases and an American Indian farmers discrimination lawsuit.
-Nominated Arvo Mikkanen to be a federal judge in Oklahoma. His nomination is awaiting Senate confirmation.
-Launched a test crime-fighting program on four reservations that early results show has led to drops in violent crime in the first year.
Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and an Alaska native, said native peoples' enthusiasm for Obama goes deeper.
Obama has embraced Native American tribal sovereignty preserved in the Constitution, court decisions and treaty agreements and made that the foundation for his administration's dealings with tribes, Pata said.
All this has come about as tribes have become increasingly politically savvy, as well as more organized in making their agenda known, she said.
Like former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama appointed a Native American to his Intergovernmental Affairs staff. But he also appointed Kimberly Teehee, a member of the Cherokee Nation, as senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs.
In addition, Obama reminded executive department heads and agencies in a November 2009 memo of their obligation to regularly consult and collaborate with tribal officials on policies that impact Native Americans.
"I think we have made strides under the Obama administration the likes of which tribes have not seen for 30 years," said Stacy Bohlen, executive director of the National Indian Health Board. Bohlen is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan.
Several agencies have yet to draft policies, according to the National Congress of American Indians.