President Barack Obama Speaks to Indian Tribal Leaders in Washington
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT THE TRIBAL NATIONS CONFERENCE
U.S. Department of the Interior
3:15 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you so much. Everybody, please, please have a seat.
Thank you, Brian, for that wonderful introduction. Thanks to all the members of Congress and members of my administration who are here. And I want to give a special shout-out to Senator Danny Akaka, who has been such a tireless advocate for Native Americans throughout his career. (Applause.) You know that Danny is going to be retiring this year, and he’s such a great friend. And as a Hawaiian boy, I’ve got to give him a little special props. (Laughter.) So I want to thank all the tribal leaders who took the time and the effort to come and take part in this conference.
Every year I look forward to this event. It’s especially wonderful to see so many friends that I’ve gotten to know from various nations all across the country. You guys inspire me every single day, and whenever I’ve traveled to your home states there’s been such a warm welcome that I’ve received. So I’m truly grateful to all of you.
Today, I want to begin by remembering somebody we lost last week. To the Crow Nation, he was a revered elder. To many Native Americans, he was a respected healer. And I knew him warmly, for a few years at least, as an adoptive father.
Sonny Black Eagle adopted me into the Crow Nation during my 2008 campaign. And yesterday he would have been 79 years old. And while we can’t celebrate that milestone with him today, we can celebrate his remarkable life and all that happened along the way, because Sonny’s story is not just one man’s journey to keep his culture alive, but one country’s journey to keep perfecting itself.
So Sonny Black Eagle was born in 1933 just outside of Lodge Grass, Montana. That’s where his grandparents raised him after his mother died of tuberculosis; where he tended to cattle as a child; and where as an adult, he raised a family of his own. And Sonny was brought up in the traditional Crow ways, with the same values that many of you share — a reverence for the Earth, to cherish the Earth and to cherish each other; to honor ancestors and preserve traditions.
Staying true to those values wasn’t always easy. As a child, if Sonny spoke Crow in school, his teachers would strike his hand with a ruler. As a teenager, when he went to eat at local restaurants he was sometimes met with a sign on the door that said, “No Indians or dogs allowed.” In the 1950s, as Sonny and his wife Mary began a new life together, the government put in place a new policy of forced assimilation — a move that harkened back to the days when Native religions and languages were banned. The policy was called “termination” for a reason — it was meant to end tribal governments in America once and for all.
So Sonny, like many of you, knew intolerance and knew injustice. He knew what it was like to be persecuted for who you are and what you believe. But as time went by, year by year, decade by decade, as Native Americans rallied together and marched together, as students descended on Alcatraz and activists held their ground at Frank’s Landing, as respect and appreciation for your unique heritage grew and a seminal struggle played itself out, Sonny lived to see something else. He saw a new beginning.
He lived to see a government that turned the page on a troubled past and adopted a new policy towards Native Americans — a policy centered on self-determination and the right for tribal governments to do whatever you think is best to strengthen your communities.
Over the past 40 years, that policy has had a major impact. It has empowered you to build up stronger institutions. It has enabled you to establish more effective law and order. It has laid the foundation for a true and lasting government-to-government relationship with the United States.
And over those decades, as Sonny went from being a father to a great-great-grandfather; and as he taught his family the Crow language and his community the Crow customs; as he became a living symbol of the perseverance of the entire Crow nation, Sonny stayed true to those fundamental values — to those fundamental values — to cherish the Earth and each other, to honor ancestors and preserve traditions.
And these are not just Sonny’s values. In fact, they’re not just values cherished by Native Americans. These should be and are American values. And they lie at the heart of some of our country’s greatest challenges — to rebuild the middle class; to build ladders of opportunity for everybody who’s working hard; to protect our planet; to leave our children something better than we inherited; to make sure Americans remain optimistic about the future and that this country of ours remains the place where no matter who you are or what you look like or where you come from or what your last name is, you can make it here if you try.
Now, these are the challenges that we can only solve together, and that’s been our approach to the unique challenges facing Indian country.
Now, three years ago, I was proud to see that this conference was the largest gathering of tribal leaders in our history. And back then, an event like this was rare. Today, it’s gotten routine. (Laughter.) What I told you then is that I was committed to more than a unique nation-to-nation relationship — I was committed to getting this relationship right, so that your nations can be full partners in our economy and your children can have a fair shot at pursuing the American Dream — (applause) — and that no one has to live under the cloud of fear or injustice.
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