President Obama questions and answers with tribes
After delivering opening remarks and signing a memo on consultation, President Barack Obama interacted directly with tribal leaders at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, which took place at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, November 5.

Obama took questions from National Congress of American Indians President Jefferson Keel, Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly, Tlingit and Haida Tribes President Bill Martin, Ho-Chunk Nation President Wilfred Cleveland, Karluk Traditional Council President Alicia Reft, Oglala Sioux Tribe President Theresa Two Bulls, Quapaw Tribe Chairman John Berrey, Point Hope Village President Caroline Cannon, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman Marcus Levings and Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians Chair Leslie Lohse.

The following is the transcript of the interaction, as provided by the White House.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. All right, I think that we've got some time for questions and answers. If you've got the questions, then if I don't have the answers somebody here does. (Laughter.) So -- hold on, no shouting now. (Laughter.) But I would love to come to Alaska, absolutely. (Applause.)

So everybody have a seat and Jefferson, how are we working this? You get the first question? He's a big cheese, so he gets the first question. (Laughter.) Go ahead.

MR. KEEL: Thank you, Mr. President. First of all, I want to thank you for honoring your commitments that you've made to restore the federal government's trust responsibility and the important relationship between Indian nations and the United States.

We've seen you honor your commitments in the appointments you've made to the many Native American people serving in your administration; we certainly appreciate that. But also we've seen improvements in the budgets for Indian programs and we're certainly appreciative of that.

As the President of the National Congress of American Indians I've been asked to make a request on the fundamental issues. Tribes across the country strongly support the creation of the executive order you just mentioned and we're certainly proud of that, reaffirming the inherent sovereign status of our nations and renewing the pledge to honor the treaties and to trust responsibility. We particularly hope for the establishment of real mechanisms for accountability, not only for this administration but set a path for the future.

We request that you address the issues of Indian lands and the trust responsibility. We need to restore tribal lands that have been taken away. We need to change the management that exists on existing tribal lands. There's so much potential for economic development. We ask that the federal government become a partner in that journey. We particularly thank you for the administration's support for the Carcieri solution.

And finally, Mr. President, we know that you've made significant pledges and commitments to Indian country, and we want to honor you by saying thank you for those commitments. But more than that, we respect you as a man of your word. You've restored hope to the Indian communities, and we want to thank you for restoring that, not only just by your words, but by your actions. Thank you again, Mr. President. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that. Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

Okay, who's next? There are mics in there. Please introduce yourself, by the way.

Q Good morning, Mr. President, President Obama. I am the Vice President of Navajo Nation. I got one small question to you. I watched the message you gave us a while ago. It's very good, I like it. And your commitment -- you have fulfilled your commitment. But one thing I'm worried about, on behalf of all the Nation here and also the Navajo Nation, what this administration -- you went and reached out to the Native American Nation, which you're doing it now. It would be nice, it would be -- if you could work with us with the congressional people and make it a mandate that we should -- that the United States government should work with the Indian Nation, because every four years -- and I know you're going to win your reelection, you have another -- some numbers of years. (Applause.) But the thing I'm worried about is the end of the term and what happens with all the plans that we're going to be putting together with your administration -- our administration. I supported you, and Navajo Nation did. What happens to all of that?

I really don't want to stand here and complain about we've been lied to again. Through the histories of all Indian Tribe -- the treaty that were made between the United States and Indian Tribe, it's been broken a lot. How can we make it so solid that it stays there, no matter who, what administration comes in? I think we need to work on that, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Look, obviously the executive branch's job is to implement law. Now, a lot of these treaties, a lot of these consultations are embedded in law and we've got to make sure that they're implemented. So for the next eight years -- the next four years, at least, let me not jump the gun -- (laughter) -- for the next three years and one month -- (laughter) -- that I'm assured of this current position, we are going to make sure that we put the infrastructure and the framework in place so that a new dynamic, a new set of relationships have been established.

And to the extent that we can partner with Congress to lock some of those good habits in and end some of the bad habits that we've seen in the past, that's something that we'll be very interested in doing.

So I think that should be part of the agenda of consultation over the next several years, is how do we continue to institutionalize some of the best practices of consultation and collaboration and partnership that's so important. So thank you so much. All right? (Applause.)

I want to make sure that some folks in the back get -- are there any other microphones here? Is this the only one? Okay, because the -- I'm going to go ahead and call on this gentleman, but I don't everybody just in the front seat to get a question, so go ahead.

Q Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you for fulfilling your commitment to meet with the tribes in the very first year of your administration. We really appreciate it. My name is Bill Martin. I'm President of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, but today I represent all the native peoples of Alaska. I present to you our request for assistance.

We ask that you strengthen and support our sovereignty for all Alaska tribes by supporting our fishing and subsistence rights; by providing equity and funding across all tribal governments; providing an infrastructure of basic services in our villages, of plumbing in town hall meetings, in roads, sewer, et cetera; provide adequate emergency response for suicide prevention and health care services. Suicide is a very high rate in Alaska. It's -- for all of Alaska, is twice the national average for natives. It's five times the average. And for young men between 15 and 27 it's 12 times the national average. And it's a serious issue and we hope that we can be able to provide more funding to combat suicide.

I'd like you to help us by providing opportunities to enhance education, cultural language teachings within our community. Many Indians and Alaska natives live in third world countries. There's a great poverty of unsustainable economies in Indian country. There is a lack of capital.

Before the economic crisis, bank lending was very weak to non-existent for tribal businesses. In similar conditions in underdeveloped countries, the United States offers effective programs to induce economic investments, two programs like the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and the Export-Import Bank. We ask that you commit to develop similar federally backed institutions designed specifically for tribes, Alaska natives, Alaska native corporations.

We ask for -- that you work with us to stop the disastrous erosion caused by global warming. Many of our villages are ready to slide off into the waters of Alaska, and in some cases, there will be absolutely no hope, we will need to move many villages. We ask you to ensure tribal and rural equity for Alaska tribes, meaning those that live in the urban areas and also in the rural areas; support Alaska tribes to promote self-determination for all of Alaska people; to help and promote public safety from child abuse, from spousal abuse.

And, finally, Mr. President, Alaska is a great land. Were it superimposed on a map of the continental United States, it would stretch from Florida to California, from North Dakota to Texas. And the people of Alaska are just as different as the differences in this whole country, but we stand united. We stand united in the pursuit of happiness for our families, and to train them and bring them as we were brought up for hundreds and hundreds of years since time immemorial. And we stand united in inviting you to visit this great land.

Every Alaska native has a special place to go to get away from it all. And if you ever decide to want to get away from it all, come see one of us. (Laughter.) We'll take you to that special place. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: All right. I often want to get away from it all. (Laughter.) So I'm very much looking forward to visiting Alaska. Thank you for sharing that important information with us. One thing I'd note that -- obviously you guys are going to be here all day, so some of these key written statements you're going to be able to present to not only the relevant White House staff, but also the secretaries that were -- that are going to be participating, as well as members of Congress who are participating.

The only thing I do want to make sure you understand is when I do visit Alaska, it's going to be during the summer. (Laughter.) So I just wanted to be clear about that.

Okay. This -- sorry, I'm getting old, so -- there you go. Go ahead.

Q Good morning.

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning.

Q Honorable President Barack Obama -- he who cares -- it's good to see you today. My name is Wilfred Cleveland from the Ho-Chunk Nation, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Bear Clan, from the state of Wisconsin.

Our people had organized a government in 1963. Topics that they discussed was land, health, education, employment, unemployment. And today we come here before you with those same concerns, 46 years later. So these are -- in our ceremonies at home, in our hearts, we talk -- we think about that today would be a day different from day when our elders, when our ancestors, made treaties with the United States. They were broken, they were not honored, but today would be different.

We have entitlements for these programs that are given to us. Rather than being able to come to you and compete with other tribes each tribe should be entitled to all these as part of the trust responsibility. So we ask that you would make this possible for us so that we would be having a good relationship with one another when we come to meetings.

And Mr. President, we have our -- we were not born owners of these lands, but stewards. Today we have to purchase our lands back and we have this process of putting our land back into trust (inaudible) or trust process, and that's a long process that is there. A part of it is -- part of this process is giving states, county, and even local governments an opportunity to say whether these lands can go in the trust or not. Now I ask you, is that nation-to-nation relationship? (Applause.)

Each of our nations have warriors, and today I name a few of those warriors. I name Roger Jourdain, he was the chairman of the Red Lake band of Chippewa. I name Wendell Chino, he was the chairman of the Mescalero Apache Nation. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Senator Ted Kennedy. The then-Senator Walter Mondale. Each of these warriors gave their full support to the advancement of all native nations. We today are here to follow in those footprints so that our people can enjoy our sovereignty.

The U.S. government was formed with a native concept. Today we, the native nations, have formed governments, and we must continuously fight to maintain our sovereignty and our lands we were once stewards of. We must have the same relationship with the federal government as the states. We must not be restricted under the watchdog of the BIA, but rather be enhanced with a nation-with-nation relationship.

We tribal leaders understand the task you face in the steering the country out of the difficult times that we are in. However, on your visit to the Crow reservation, you told those gathered that you intend to acknowledge the tragic history of Native Americans over the past three centuries, then promising during these (inaudible).

We will continue to support you and your administration during these challenging times as you walk with us to make us stronger nations for our future generations. Thank you for your time.

THE PRESIDENT: All right, thank you. (Applause.) Thank you.

Let's see if -- I want to get a woman's voice in here. (Laughter and applause.) So how about this young lady right here? Right there in the blue.

Q Hi. My name is Alicia Reft. I'm the president of the Karluk IRA Traditional Council. Karluk is a small village in Kodiak Island, Alaska. And I have lots to say, but the two most important things were that my two nephews from home wanted me to shake your hand if I can, and an elder that works at Safeway -- her name's Erlinda (phonetic) -- she said to make sure and say hi and that she loves you very much.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you tell Linda I love her back. (Laughter and applause.)

Q Thank you.


All right, right there in the red, right in the middle.

Q My name is Theresa Two Bulls. I'm president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from the state of South Dakota, and a member of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association. Thank you for meeting with us today, for opening up your heart. It's good to hear your words. They're dear to our hearts. I come on two issues -- honor the treaties. Too long they have been not honored by the federal government. And you talk about a change -- now is the change. Allow us and work with us to exercise our sovereignty, our self-determination.

And the second issue is our children. Our children are sacred. We want the best for them. And we ask that you help us to ensure a better education, a better life, well-being for our children, because they're going to be the future leaders.

And I say thank you, and we love you. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. All right. The gentleman right there -- right here in front.

Q Thank you very much, Mr. President. My name is John Berrey. I'm the chairman of the Quapaw Tribe in Oklahoma. And on behalf of the other Oklahoma tribes, I want to thank you for coming here today.

I have one request. The Quapaw Tribe has the honor of having the largest Superfund site in the United States -- it's Tar Creek Superfund site. We have 72 million tons of mining waste on our lands. And I would like to ask you to come visit it and see the devastation caused by this management of tribal resources, and help elevate tribes to the same level of states when we're dealing with the remediation of Superfund sites so we can have the same voice as the state in designing a better future and environment for our people.

Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Good. Well, this is really important. Obviously the whole issue of environmental integrity on tribal lands is something that too often has slipped through the cracks or decisions have been made in the absence of consultation with the tribes. So this is going to be a top priority generally -- improving our environmental quality. The issue of climate change is something that we are working diligently on and everybody has a huge interest in this, no place more so than Alaska where the effects are already beginning to be felt and it's starting to change I think the ability of native peoples to -- whose economies oftentimes may be based on interacting with the natural environment there. They're already starting to have to make significant changes that have to be addressed.

So my hope is one of the things that will be taking place during today's session and then continuing is you've got a great Secretary of the Interior who cares about natural resources. But we've also got an outstanding EPA director in Lisa Jackson. And figuring out how we can improve environmental coordination with the tribal nations so that we're matching the energy agenda that I already spoke about in my speech with an environmental agenda I think is going to be not only good for native peoples, it's also going to be good for the United States generally. And we have a lot to learn from your nations in order to create the kind of sustainability in our environment that is -- we so desperately need.

So I will make sure that somebody follows up directly with your tribe on this Superfund site. All right. Uh-oh, now everybody is raising their hand. (Laughter.)

All right, this young lady right here. Yes.

Q Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm so privileged and honored to be here. My name is Caroline Cannon, president for the Native Village of Point Hope. I came here with a message from my tribe, that we are impacted with the offshore drilling, the decision that's been made on behalf of our tribe during the Bush administration. And we would like you to overturn that.

I live in the coastal village, and exactly where climate change has a big impact. We are a whaling community, and we need help. It's happening so fast that last year -- a couple of years ago, there were some incidents that occurred because of the ice condition during the whaling season, so I would like help. And I think that -- we also are around the coast of the Red Dog Mine, and they have decided that they're going to have a discharge pipeline to our ocean, where we highly rely on our food resources.

So thank you, again. And my seven-year-son says a big hello. He said I should give you a hug, but I know that's not an opportunity right now. (Laughter.) But thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Maybe after the Q&A, I'll get that hug in. (Laughter.) I want you to know, just with respect to offshore drilling, Secretary Salazar is in the process of reviewing some of the directives that were issued under the previous administration. And I am confident that as part of that overarching review, that consultation with potentially affected nations will be part of Ken's process.

Okay, you know, let's see, this gentleman right here with the headdress.

Q Honorable President Obama, this is the second time I get a chance to address you. I've been wearing the war bonnet and I've been really displeasing these gentle ladies behind me, but this is yours. In our Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara ways you don't give a gift to a tent, you give it to the individual. You are our Commander-in-Chief for the soldiers, I'm a lieutenant in the Army Reserve. My name is Ee-Ba-Da-Gish, White-Headed Eagle. I am the chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. My name is Marcus Dominick Levings. I first met you in Grand Forks at your VIP room. My mother is Dowah (phonetic) Rezilda "Brady" Wells. She gave you the red, white, and blue star quilt --

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it's beautiful.

Q -- with all the prayers. She sent this to you as well, so I'll give it to whatever Secret Service people I need to do that. (Laughter.)

President Obama, I have two issues for my people, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, 11,000 tribal members who live in western North Dakota on top of the Williston Basin, the Bakken Formation. We have oil and gas development today, Mr. President. We have an opportunity to be independent from any means of federal programs, any type of issues that we had been not needing before the flood of Elbowoods, North Dakota, in the 1950s. In the spirit of progress, our elders, our ancestors gave up their bottom land. Ninety percent of our people live there, Mr. President. And now they're up on high hilltops, 77-below wind chill factors in winter.

We are the tribe, the Mandan, Hidatsas, and Arikaras, who saved Lewis and Clark. We were the ones who made it so they can go out to blaze the trail to Portland. Now we come for you to ask for some help on our energy development, to get the 49-step process eliminated so our elders, who are dying as we speak, can generate opportunities to receive royalties on their minerals.

Second, with all this economic development boom that's going on, Mr. President, in the Williston Basin, and Fort Berthold Reservation, 1 million acres, we need homes. We are short 1,000 homes, Mr. President, home ownership and rentals as well. So on behalf of the Tribal Business Council and my elders, I stand humbly in front of you and ask for your help. Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. (Applause.) I've got time only for one more question unfortunately, and I'm not going to be able to get to everybody, so right there in the middle, right there in the middle.

Q Persistence. And that's a characteristic of all Native Americans. That's why I stood there for a long time.

So thank you very much, Mr. President, for meeting with us today on this historical day. And we are truly grateful for this opportunity. My name is Leslie Lohse. I'm with the Paskenta Nomlaki in California. And in California there are many landless tribes. We do have gaming out there, and I would ask that you ask the Secretary of Interior to make some policies that are much more clarifying in getting our lands into trust, because it's causing some issues out there between the gaming tribes -- maybe nine gaming tribes -- and with the local communities and our state itself. So we ask that you ask them to make these things more clearly for all of us to abide by.

And another thing that I'd like to ask you to do is to take care of our 8(a) program because those of us -- those that are landless out there can develop economic development opportunities through the 8(a) contracting program, and that may ease some of the burdens that some of the landless tribes are, because you don't need to have land to operate that.

And there is an attack on our 8(a) program -- I perceive it as an attack -- because it is limiting. We just barely started three years ago with ours, and we're starting to get rolling, and now they want to change the rules. So I ask that you pay mind to that -- that we not inhibit our growth in that way so that we can purchase some of our lands back and grow from that, instead of being dependent on gaming. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Okay. Well, listen, I am so grateful that all of you are here. I appreciate what you've shared with me. But the most important opportunity that you will have today is to interact directly with the department heads, the secretaries who are in charge of implementation on a whole range of these issues.

So I want intensive discussion and dialogue with them. Present to them your concerns, your specific recommendations. They are here to listen and to learn and to advise. I am going to meet back up with you at the end of the day. And if you guys have just been partying and not working -- (laughter) -- I'll know.

So I hope you have a wonderfully productive conference today. I will see you at the end of it. And again, I appreciate everything that you guys have done. God bless you. Thank you. (Applause.)

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