CANNONBALL, ND — This isolated town nestled in the rolling prairie of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation is so small its only formal sign is a rock spray-painted with “C. Ball.” But on Friday afternoon, it briefly became the center of American politics when President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited.
It was Obama’s first stop as president on an Indian reservation, where he touted his administration’s progress with Native Americans, unveiled new tribal economic and educational measures, and spoke about the hard work that remains to be done. to lift many Indians out of crippling poverty and rampant unemployment.
“My administration is committed to partnering with the tribes,” Obama said. “It happens every day on just about every issue that affects your life.”
The president met with Native American children ahead of the tribe’s annual Flag Day powwow. Groups of tribal dancers dressed in brightly colored costumes performed a traditional dance to him.
The administration announced plans to reform the Bureau of Indian Education to better educate native children and increase tribal control of schools. The White House also plans to remove regulatory barriers to infrastructure and energy development, encourage the use of tax-exempt bonds for economic development, and increase the number of veterans hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services.
Many tribal leaders say Obama has done more in six years for Native Americans than all of his predecessors combined. The administration has returned land to tribes and worked one-on-one with tribal governments, and it is cracking down on crime in Indian Country.
“The best thing that happened to Indian Country was the election of President Obama,” said Dave Archambault II, president of Standing Rock.
But many Native Americans also retain a deep distrust of a federal government that has historically reneged on agreements and, many believe, treated Native Americans after the fact for generations.
“There was a bad record. Our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers went to Washington, and no promises were made and no promises were kept. That’s why we didn’t trust the federal government,” said Tex “Red Tipped Arrow” Hall, tribal chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation in North Dakota.
Here at Standing Rock, where cows graze on the Cannon Ball River and a casino is the main economic engine, the statistics paint a grim picture: 40% of residents live in poverty and two-thirds are unemployed. Sexual assault and violence have long been problems on the reservation, which stretches into South Dakota and is roughly the size of Connecticut. Suicide and alcoholism rates are high and at least half of high school students drop out.
“It’s kind of a poor town. There’s no money,” said resident Paul Red-Dogg, who stood outside the small Cannon Ball post office on Friday waiting for it to open. He is unemployed and his options are limited because he cannot afford a car.
Despite these realities, Archambault said he remains optimistic, in part because of Obama’s outreach to Native Americans.
Obama hosted annual conferences for tribal leaders in Washington, where Native leaders discussed issues facing their communities with White House and administration staffers. Obama’s senior policy adviser for Native American affairs, Jodi Gillette, grew up in Standing Rock.
“The fact that tribal leaders can sit down with the president every year is something that has rarely happened,” said Eddie Brown, professor and director of Native American studies at Arizona State University.
Obama also made it easier for Native American nations to receive disaster aid by allowing them to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency directly and by streamlining authorizations for economic development projects.
“This step of having to go to the governor has been removed. This is such a boost to our sovereignty,” said Cynthia Iyall, Chief of the Nisqually Indian Tribe in Washington state.
The administration has agreed to pay $3.4 billion to settle a decades-long class action lawsuit against the government for mishandling native land royalties. Payments, however, have been delayed because thousands of people deemed ineligible are appealing. Montana senators have formally complained that the process is shrouded in secrecy.
The government has also established a land buyback programwhich remunerates owners who have voluntarily sold their land.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has made improving security in Indian Country a top priority, establishing a task force that has been conducting hearings across the country since December.
The group examines disparities in criminal convictions for Native Americans. He created a permanent Office of Tribal Justice and proposed language in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act that allows tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who assault Native women on tribal lands. The law, which Obama signed last year, won’t go into effect until 2015, but the Justice Department picked three tribes to begin enforcing the law a year ahead of the country’s 563 other tribes recognized by the federal government.
Despite recent efforts, the deep scars on Indian country remain, and many fear that the initiatives, which will take years to materialize, will come to a halt after Obama’s departure.
“We have made promises that we frankly have not kept to provide education and other services to Indians,” said Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Department of the Interior and a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation. in Oklahoma. “It’s a tough legacy to live up to.”
Many Native American leaders from Montana to Oklahoma vehemently oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, on which the Obama administration postponed a decision again in April.
Other Native American nations are fighting for the right to participate in North Dakota’s oil boom. Hall said the layers of bureaucracy that Native Americans have to go through to receive drilling permits makes working on Indian lands undesirable for energy companies.
“If you contract for an oil rig for $30,000 a day, you’re not going to wait a year. You are going to come out of the reserve,” he said. “You’re going to have a donut hole around Indian nations.”
Archambault said he and other tribesmen had spent the past week giddily anticipating the president’s trip. Obama is the first president to visit Native American lands since Bill Clinton in 1999; before him was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Obama also visited Crow Nation in Montana during his 2008 campaign.
“I know what the president is doing is not going to solve all of our problems overnight. I know it’s not going to fix all the wrongs that have been done to Native Americans or Indian Country, but it’s going to inspire a lot of people,” Archambault said. “If it brings a little hope to a person, if it helps a single mother, if a veteran feels pride, it’s worth it.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.