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richard marcellais tribal chairman tribal nations conference Richard Marcellais, tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa, talks to Scholastic Kid Reporter Alexandra Zhang at the Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C., on November 5, 2009. (Photo Courtesy Alexandra Zhang)

Historic Tribal Nations Meeting

President hosts Native Americans in D.C. talks

By Alexandra Zhang | November 9 , 2009

More than 400 Native American representatives from 564 tribal nations in the U.S. gathered at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., last week. President Obama served as host to the largest-ever Tribal Nations Conference.

The first such gathering in 15 years, the conference was held so that Native Americans could speak out and interact directly with the President and members of Congress and the cabinet.

"We are here today because our President, Barack Obama, respects the government of Indian nations, and believes that the federal government must honor its commitments to American Indians and Alaskan Natives communities," stated Secretary Ken Salazar of the Department of Interior in welcoming remarks.

Many Native Americans came dressed in colorful tribal clothing. Five Native American soldiers presented the colors (a formal military ceremony placing flags on the stage). Others sang a native prayer to open the proceedings. The soldiers were Navajo Code Talkers who served in World War II. They proudly marched up the aisle with an array of U.S. military flags.

Presidential Proclamation

The President delivered opening and closing remarks, and stayed for a question and answer session. He also signed a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies charging them with continuing the work started at the conference.

"The United States has a unique legal and political relationship with Indian tribal governments, established through and confirmed by the Constitution of the United States, treaties, statutes, executive orders, and judicial decisions," read the document.

In his opening remarks, President Obama talked about the memorandum and the pressing issues facing Native American people such as poverty, unemployment, education, and community safety.

"I believe that constructive dialogue can open the door to a new era in that special Federal-Tribal relationship," he said.

Right after the opening remarks, the President led a question and answer session. Applause and laughter during the session mixed with serious requests and discussions.

kid reporter with head of bureau of indian affairs
Scholastic Kid Reporter Alexandra Zhang with head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Larry Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnees. (Photo Courtesy Alexandra Zhang)



A number of tribal leaders talked to this Scholastic Reporter about their excitement and hope for the outcome of the conference.

"I was pleased to hear from President Obama about his dedication to living up to the trust responsibilities of the federal government," said Patricia Whitefoot, who teaches Native American children in Montana. As president of the National Indian Education Association, she was eager to get more federal help for education programs.

Richard Marcellais, whose native dress most definitely defined him as a Native American, talked about long-term commitment between the many nations.

"We hope to improve our government-to-government relationship between the federal government and the 564 tribes which are located within the United States and Alaska," he said.

A second workshop featured cabinet members who lead discussions and answered questions about economic development, natural resources, energy, environment, and agriculture.

"I think we need to do a better job in our programs for the Native Americans," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, agreed.

"We have an obligation for the culture of the tribe as well as the people," he said.

The goal of this conference was to let President Obama know how Native Americans are doing in the country today, said Larry Echo Hawk, head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Echo Hawk is a Pawnee.

"The government has been helping, but not as much as they could have," he told the Scholastic Kids Press Corps. "But they are doing the best they can."

Native Americans are very much a part of this nation, and have accomplished many great things, said BIA spokesperson Nedra Darling.

"There has been a vice president, senators, and congressmen, all these important people who are Native Americans who served our nation," she said. "Who knows? There might even be a President someday."


American Indian Heritage Month

For more Kid Reporter coverage of the annual celebration of America's native heritage, check out the American Indian Heritage Month Special Report.

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