President Barack Obama hosts final White House Tribal Nations Conference

Indianz.Com on YouTube: President Barack Obama Honoring / White House Tribal Nations Conference

President Barack Obama hosted his final White House Tribal Nations Conference on Monday and vowed to continue supporting Indian Country after he leaves office.

While Obama's speech lasted less than 12 minutes -- the shortest of any of his eight conferences -- tribal leaders eagerly embraced the president as he winds down his administration. During a moving ceremony that showcased the diversity of Indian Country, he was presented with a blanket and honored with two songs at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

"Mr. President, many of the decisions you have made over the past eight years have been transformational to Indian Country," said Brian Cladoosby, the leader of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization in the United States.

"Through your actions and your commitment to sovereignty, tribal nations have been uplifted," said Cladoosby, who also serves as chairman of the Swinomish Tribe in Washington state.

'This is a man who has kept this campaign promise of honoring the true nation-to-nation relationship between our respective tribal governments and the United States," added Lynn Malerba, who was the first woman to serve as chair of the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut and now serves as its first female chief.

President Barack Obama at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C, on September 26, 2016. Photo by Pete Souza / White House

Obama accepted the "Rhythm of the Land" blanket and the crowd of hundreds erupted in cheers as Cladoosby placed a Pacific Northwest cedar hat on the president's head. He listened intently to a bird song from Kelly Washington and Martha Martinez, from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community in Arizona, and a drum song by Byron Nicholai, Yup'ik from Alaska, before he promised to keep standing with Indian Country.

"Even after my time in this office comes to an end, I’m going to be standing alongside you because I believe that, yes, our progress depends in part on who sits in the Oval Office, and whether they’re setting the right priorities, but lasting progress depends on all of us, not just who the president is," Obama told tribal leaders.

"It depends on making the decisions that are good and right and just, and our willingness to organize and mobilize and keep pushing for opportunity," Obama added.

The speech capped off a day in which tribal leaders repeatedly thanked Obama for ushering in a new era in government-to-government relations. They cited improvements in the land-into-trust process, the resolution of dozens of lawsuits on behalf of tribes and individual Indians, the appointment of tribal citizens to top positions throughout his administration and support for key legislative initiatives like the Violence Against Women Act.

During the 8th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, I got the chance to sing for the President of the United States. It's a performance I'll never forget. Just watching this video, seeing Obama take it all in, shows all of us that anything really is possible. I started as a kid from a village, singing in front of an iPhone. I didn't know where that would lead me but ever since I started doing that, great things have been happening. And I have all of you guys to thank. Quyana cakneq! Love you all!! When I shook Obama's hand, I was speechless. I thought that was funny lol. Video credit to Mike Williams from Akiak.

Posted by I Sing. You Dance. on Monday, September 26, 2016

Byron Nicholai on Facebook: "Just watching this video, seeing Obama take it all in, shows all of us that anything really is possible."

But with less than four months left until a new president comes on board, tribes were eagerly aware of the uncertainty that lies ahead. They repeatedly voiced concerns, asked questions and looked for ways to maintain progress regardless of who wins the November election.

"The one thing I honestly believe that will help us transition as we elect a new president is that we have to stand together as one," said Phyllis Anderson, who is the first woman to lead the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

"Tribes coming together as one is the only way we are going to be successful," Anderson added.

The White House Tribal Nations Conference grew out of a promise then-candidate Obama made during his 2008 campaign. It's been held every year since 2009 -- though never actually at the White House -- and marks the first time in history that any president has met with tribes on such a large scale and on a regular basis.

A photo posted by Pete Souza (@petesouza) on

Pete Souza / White House on Instagram: Watching President Obama speak at his last White House Tribal Nations Conference

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president, has promised to continue hosting the conference if she wins the election. Her platform also vows to expand on the gains that tribes have seen during the Obama years and many of her Native advisers and supporters worked on Obama's campaign and in his administration.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has not said anything publicly about his approach to federal-tribal relationship since launching his campaign over a year ago. He met with a small group of tribal leaders in Arizona in June and his running mate, Mike Pence, held a town hall at Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico in August but did not mention Indian Country at all.

Clinton and Trump met for the first 2016 presidential debate just hours after the conclusion of the White House Tribal Nations Conference but neither candidate mentioned Native Americans at all despite a brief discussion on race-related issues during their highly-anticipated meetup in New York on Monday evening.

Regardless of who wins the election, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Obama has formalized the White House Council on Native American Affairs by signing an executive order to make it permanent. But she acknowledged that a new president could take matters in a different direction.

Department of the Interior on YouTube: Sec. Jewell Addresses the White House Tribal Nations Conference

"The executive order will continue unless a future president consciously undoes it and our voices will be very important in making sure that it doesn't get undone," said Jewell, whose opening speech drew a standing ovation after she became emotional as she thanked tribes for influencing her work at the Interior Department over the last three years.

"Thank you for the warmth with which you've welcomed me into your lives, the openness with which you've shared your traditions and your culture, the wisdom and the honesty that has helped guide me to be the best Secretary I could be so far," Jewell said amid tears.

"A few months to go," Jewell said.

Jewell is hosting a meeting of the White House Council on Native American Affairs at her department on Tuesday. Earlier this month, Cladoosby became the first tribal leader to address the group, which was criticized for lacking Indian Country representation. That is changing as the council now includes tribal leaders and tribal leaders are being invited to all future meetings, Jewell said.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Remarks by Obama at White House Tribal Nations Conference (9/26)
President Obama signs bill to promote Native tourism into law (9/26)
Obama administration asks tribes about infrastructure projects (09/23)
Tribes face uncertainty on land-into-trust as Obama era comes to a close (09/21)
White House Tribal Nations Conference expands to a second day (08/31)
End of an era nears with final White House Tribal Nations Conference (08/09)Vice President Joe Biden urges early work on Violence Against Women Act (06/15)
First Lady Michelle Obama shares message of hope with Indian school (05/26)
Remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama at Santa Fe Indian School (05/26)
Native student heads to Obama's last State of the Union speech (01/11)
Tribes and activists celebrate rejection of Keystone XL Pipeline (11/09)
Obama takes aim at racist mascots and harmful stereotypes (11/06)
Transcript: President Obama at Tribal Nations Conference (11/06)
Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference opens in DC (11/05)
Fact Sheet: White House Tribal Nations Conference in 2015 (11/05)
Obama to speak with Native youth at Tribal Nations Conference (11/02)
Obama issues proclamation for Native American Heritage Month (10/30)
White House Tribal Nations Conference on November 5 in D.C. (10/20)
Alaska Federation of Natives hosts welcome event for Obama (08/17)
Native youth hear from top officials at historic White House event (07/10)
President Obama invites Native youth to White House on July 9 (04/27)
Trending in News
More Headlines