This is the last in a series of 44 stories exploring past presidents’ attitudes toward Native Americans, challenges and triumphs regarding tribes, and the federal laws and Indian policies enacted during their terms in office.
“This whole time, I’ve heard you,” he told tribal leaders who gathered in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. But Obama’s comments were intended for a wider audience—all Natives in their respective home communities. “I have seen you. And I hope I’ve done right by you.”
The remarks, which came near the end of Obama’s presidency, revealed an emotional connection to Native Americans, said Kevin Washburn, who served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs under Obama from 2012 to 2016.
“Early on, as a candidate, Obama identified Indian country as something that was important to him, an area where he personally wanted to make a difference,” said Washburn, a law professor at the University of New Mexico and a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. “From the beginning, we saw that he was intellectually committed to Indian country. By the end, he was emotionally committed. I don’t think we’ve seen that before.”
Obama, whose two-term presidency ends in January, began championing for Indians prior to taking office. In fact, Obama announced his federal Indian policy six months before defeating John McCain in the 2008 election.
“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans, the first Americans,” Obama, then a U.S senator from Illinois, said during a May 2008 campaign speech on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. “My Indian policy starts with honoring the unique government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government and ensuring that our treaty responsibilities are met and ensuring that Native Americans have a voice in the White House.”
Obama, who was adopted into the Crow Nation that day, promised to appoint an American Indian policy adviser to his senior staff and “end nearly a century of mismanagement of Indian trust.” He also pledged to host an annual summit with tribal leaders.
“That’s how we’ll make sure that you have a seat at the table when important decisions are being made about your lives, about your nations, about your people,” he said.
Ten months after taking office, Obama hosted his first White House Tribal Nations Conference, which he recognized as “the largest and most widely attended gathering of tribal leaders” in history. Having already dispatched department secretaries to listening sessions in Indian country, Obama launched a “lasting conversation” with tribal leaders that would span the rest of his presidency.
The conversation began by acknowledging “a history marked by violence and disease and deprivation,” Obama said. He recognized that recent history also was marked by too little communication between tribes and the federal government, but said he was “absolutely committed” to changing that.
“It’s a commitment that’s deeper than our unique nation-to-nation relationship,” he said. “It’s a commitment to getting this relationship right, so that you can be full partners in the American economy, and so your children and your grandchildren can have an equal shot at pursuing the American Dream.”
Obama used his first Tribal Nations Conference to sign a presidential memorandum directing every cabinet agency to provide a plan within 90 days—and on an annual basis thereafter—detailing its consultations with tribes, plans to implement change in Indian country and regular progress reports. The memorandum came nine years after President Bill Clinton issued a similar executive order, but agencies had largely failed to follow through.
“History has shown that failure to include the voices of tribal officials in formulating policy affecting their communities has all too often led to undesirable and, at times, devastating and tragic results,” the memorandum states. “By contrast, meaningful dialogue between Federal officials and tribal officials has greatly improved Federal policy toward Indian tribes.”
Obama went on to host a Tribal Nations Conference every year—and hold his cabinet secretaries accountable, Washburn said. As a result, federal agencies rallied unprecedented devotion to Indian Affairs and accomplished more for Indians than any other administration in history.
“Virtually every agency improved somehow in what it did for Indian country,” Washburn said. “By the second or third Tribal Nations Conference, secretaries knew they had to deliver. That made them keenly aware of Indians. The conference drove policy like nothing has before.”
Born in Hawaii in 1961 to a white mother and an African American father, Obama split his childhood years between Hawaii and Indonesia. He graduated from Columbia University and worked as a community organizer in Chicago before pursuing a career in law.
Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991, then taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for 12 years. He served four years as an Illinois state senator and four years as a United States senator representing Illinois, a post he abandoned in 2008 when he was elected as president. A Democrat, Obama will have served two terms in office, from 2009 to 2017.
He inherited a country in the throes of an economic recession and a war in Iraq. He also inherited a lackluster Indian policy from his predecessor, George W. Bush, who barely acknowledged Native Americans.
Obama quickly tackled some longstanding issues, and his first term was marked by vast legislative and regulatory achievements, Washburn said. By the end of his second year in office, Obama had permanently changed the federal government’s relationships with indigenous people.
In July 2010, Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, expanding punitive authority of tribal courts and working to reduce violent crime—especially against women—in Indian country. During a signing ceremony, Obama said the act sent “a clear message that all of our people, whether they live in our biggest cities or our most remote reservations, have the right to feel safe in their own communities.”
Five months later, in December 2010, Obama signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, reversing the United States’ 2007 position and committing to honor indigenous peoples’ right to exist. That same month, Obama signed a bill settling for $3.4 billion a lawsuit filed by Elouise Cobell on behalf of 300,000 Indians who alleged the federal government mismanaged trust accounts.
“After 14 years of litigation, it’s finally time to address the way that Native Americans were treated by their government,” Obama said as he signed the Cobell settlement. “After years of delay, this bill will provide a small measure of justice to Native Americans whose funds were held in trust by a Government charged with looking out for them.”
Obama’s signature ended the largest class-action lawsuit ever filed against the federal government and signaled a dramatic change in the way federal agencies worked with tribes.
“For 15 years, the secretary of Indian Affairs was trying to serve Indian country while litigating against the people at the same time,” Washburn said. “Settling means the United States and Indian country aren’t litigating against each other anymore. The administration is working with Indians and not fighting them.”
The Cobell settlement was the first of many Obama signed that allocated dollars or land to tribes. The $680 million Keepseagle settlement also came in 2010, and by 2012, the Justice and Interior departments had reached settlements totaling more than $1 billion with 41 tribes for claims of mismanagement.
The Navajo Nation alone got $554 million—the largest settlement with a single tribe. In total, the Obama administration infused more than $10 billion into Indian country because of legal settlements. It also restored more than 500,000 acres of Indian land to trust.
If Obama’s first term was regulatory, his second was personal, Washburn said. During his final four years in office, Obama did much to protect the most vulnerable Native populations, including women and children.
“Indian country has some of the highest rates of domestic abuse in America,” Obama said. “And one of the reasons is that when Native American women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not Native American, the attacker is immune from prosecution. Well, as soon as I sign this bill that ends.”
In June 2013, Obama established the White House Council on Native American Affairs, an assembly comprising the heads of all major federal departments and agencies, and charged with improving quality of life for Native Americans. Obama also called for stricter compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, pushed for improvements in Indian schools and increased funding for suicide prevention programs in Indian country.
In June 2014, Obama journeyed to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation for a private meeting with youth—from which he emerged “shaken” because the teens “were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry,” he said.
Following that visit, Obama called for an aggressive overhaul of Indian education and other efforts to improve the lives of Native youth. In December 2014, on the heels of his visit to Standing Rock, Obama established Generation Indigenous, a network tasked with cultivating the next generation of Native leaders and removing “the barriers that stand between young people and opportunity.”
In August 2015, Obama used his executive power to officially restore the Native name of Alaska’s highest mountain peak. For almost a century, the peak was called Mount McKinley after a U.S. president who never visited Alaska. In a nod to Alaska Natives, Obama changed the name back to Denali.
As his presidency winds down, Obama continues to contend with several issues concerning Native lands. The most pressing is the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,172-mile conduit spanning North and South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois, and projected to transport 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day.
For months, hundreds of Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have camped along the route, protesting the pipeline over fears that it will pollute water and destroy sacred land. Washburn fears the controversy will mar Obama’s legacy in Indian country.
“This thing comes up at the end of the best administration in history,” Washburn said. “Here we have something, right at the end, that’s really upsetting to tribes.”
Despite his unfinished business, Obama will go down in history as the president who raised national consciousness of Native Americans, Washburn said. Obama has done more for Indians than any other president, shaking the very culture of thought in the country’s highest offices.
“One thing we learned is that it takes years to change culture in the federal government,” Washburn said. “You can’t do it in one term, and it looks like you can’t do it in two terms, but we came a long way.”