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End of an era nears with final White House Tribal Nations Conference






President Barack Obama speaks with Native youth at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C, on November 5, 2015. Still image from The White House

The last White House Tribal Nations Conference will take place next month as President Barack Obama winds down his final months in office.

The eighth conference, to be held on September 26 in Washington, D.C., is happening much earlier than usual. The first seven took place in November and December of each year, giving tribes and the Obama administration time to reflect on the challenges and successes they encountered.

But with just five months left in Obama's term, the president's schedule will become increasingly busy. And with November presidential vote looming, the early conference offers some breathing room as the nation selects its next leader in a heated and contested election cycle.

"This year’s conference will continue to build upon the President’s commitment to strengthen the government-to-government relationship with Indian Country and to improve the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives," the White House announced on Tuesday.

The conference grew out of a pledge Obama made during his 2008 presidential campaign. He vowed yearly meetings with tribal leaders, an idea that resonated strongly in Indian Country.

Since then, hundreds of tribal leaders have gathered in D.C. every winter for a chance to speak with Obama and to work directly with Cabinet officials and other top representatives of the administration. The first five events were held at the Interior Department in order to accommodate strong turnout.

Renovations at the building required the White House to move the event to different sites in 2014 and 2015. While most of the work has been completed, the project is ongoing and details about the location of next month's conference have yet to be announced.

Going forward, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has promised to maintain the conference if she wins in November. Tribal citizens believe she will advance the gains made during the Obama era, whether it's improving the government-to-government relationship, streamlining the land-into-trust process or selecting new members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We've got to keep the ball rolling," Mark Van Norman, a prominent attorney and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told Indianz.Com during the Democratic National Convention last month.

Republican nominee Donald Trump, on the other hand, has not said anything about Indian policy since the start of his campaign in June 2015. But he has drawn significant criticism for questioning the identity of indigenous peoples, attacking the integrity of the Indian gaming industry and furthering stereotypes about Native women.

"Taking on this bully who would hurt our children and the generations to come is the most important political work I have ever undertaken," Frank LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe and longtime Democratic activist, said in an interview at the DNC last month.

The Republican Party has not completely ignored Indian Country and has promised to improve economic, health and other conditions for the first Americans. But the 66-page platform failed to advance any new ideas and the section titled "Honoring Our Relationship with American Indians" is nearly identical to the 2012 document.

"Ineffective federal programs deprive American Indians of the services they need, and long-term failures threaten to undermine tribal sovereignty itself," the platform reads.

Each of the 567 federally recognized tribes is invited to send a representative to the White House Tribal Nations Conference. This year's event could include the first official appearance by the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, whose federal status was finalized in February.

In the past, anywhere from 200 to 300 tribes have sent representatives. The 2014 and 2015 conferences also drew a large contingent of Native youth.

The 2015 conference included a unique conversation between President Obama and young tribal citizens. He launched the Generation Indigenous initiative before the 2014 event after visiting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota in June of that year. Both he and First Lady Michelle Obama were strongly affected by their discussions with young residents of that reservation.

"They were just regular kids and they had these conversations ... which were so honest and were so impactful, that when the President and the First Lady walked out of that meeting, they were literally in tears," Raina Thiele (Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik), a former White House staffer, said during a meeting of the Native American Council at the DNC last month. "You don't often see that."

Additional information about the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference will be released as the event approaches.

Indianz.Com at the 2016 Democratic National Convention:
Indian Country again shares stage on final night of Dem convention (7/29)
Native Democrats make urgent case for Hillary Clinton as president (7/28)
Indian Country shares spotlight at Democratic National Convention (7/27)
Recap: Native American Council at Democratic National Convention (7/27)
Indian Country makes presence known at Democratic convention (7/26)
Native American Council meets at Democratic National Convention (07/25)

Republican Party Platform Documents:
2016: Honoring Our Relationship with American Indians | 2012: Honoring Our Relationship with American Indians | 2008: Supporting Native American Communities | 2004: Native Americans | 2000: Native Americans

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