Janice Rowe-Kurak, chairman of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, has come to Washington to meet with President Obama and other top administration officials in hopes of improving a troubled relationship between American Indians and the federal government.
She and leaders from the 564 federally recognized tribes will meet with Obama and numerous Cabinet secretaries at tomorrow's White House Tribal Nations Conference. They will discuss broken treaty obligations and tribal sovereignty, along with issues of economic development and natural resources, public safety, housing, education and health.
"I think it's significant," Rowe-Kurak said of the summit. "I'm impressed President Obama is reaching out. He made this commitment before he got elected. ... I'm hoping it's a new leaf."
But given the long history of abuse and mistrust, she has her doubts things will really change. She points to a meeting she and other tribal leaders had yesterday with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The Cabinet member gave them only 15 minutes and didn't hear from any tribal leaders, Rowe-Kurak said, even though they are heads of nations who are "supposed to be on the same level as Obama."
"I'm hoping it'll get a dialogue started," Rowe-Kurak said of the conference. "I'm still skeptical. ... I hope it's more than lip service."
Tomorrow's conference will be the first such meeting since President Clinton hosted one 15 years ago. Obama will deliver the opening and closing remarks and host one session, while six Cabinet secretaries and several other top administration officials also will participate.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday called the conference a step toward fulfilling Obama's promise to uphold a nation-to-nation relationship with the tribes and open a "new chapter of change."
"We won't be able to reach everybody on Thursday," Salazar said. "We won't be able to wave a magic wand and resolve all the issues, but it is a great foundation for all the work that lies ahead."
Salazar sidestepped a question about whether Obama may issue an executive order apologizing for mistreatment of American Indians by the government over the years. But he acknowledged that the tribes' story has been "swept under the rug in many different ways," and said the current administration plans to change that.
As for why the summit will take place at the Interior Department rather than the White House, Salazar said it was simply a matter of having enough space for all the participants.
Joseph Trujillo, lieutenant governor of the Pueblo Cochiti Tribe in New Mexico, will also be attending the conference and said it's important to the tribal leaders that Obama hear their issues, particularly on tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.
"They have a trust responsibility to Native Americans," he said. "I think we need to bring up that issue again to the president. ... I'm hopeful he might be the president to change things around for us."
But he added that it would be more effective for administration officials to visit the tribes and see their needs firsthand.
Praise for American Indian appointees
Bernadine Burnette, vice president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation in Arizona, called the conference a "historic event" and welcomed Obama's involvement.
"We're hoping his ears will send back messages to all his Cabinet departments," she said. "It's unfortunate we have to keep pushing and opening those doors."
John Poupart, president of the American Indian Policy Center in St. Paul, Minn., expressed skepticism that the conference would help American Indians in urban settings who are struggling with poverty, crime, violence and other issues.
"I just don't think there's a whole lot of outcomes from these type of things," he said. "They're more ceremonial and trying to keep people mindful of the relationship between the U.S. government and Indian tribes."
But he and other tribal leaders said the Obama administration already has shored up communications with tribes compared with past administrations. They also praised prominent American Indian appointments, including Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk, White House Senior Policy Adviser for Native American Affairs Kim Teehee, White House Associate Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Jodi Gillette, and Indian Health Service Director Yvette Roubideaux.
"I think the appointments speak well for the policy issues, because many of these people come from the reservations themselves, and they have experienced life on the reservation, so they know firsthand what the issues are," Poupart said.