WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to travel to a Native American reservation in North Dakota in June, a rare visit by a sitting U.S. president to Indian country, according to officials familiar with the plans.
The Obama administration has supported a series of measures to improve the welfare of Native Americans. The president has also signed the Tribal Law and Order Act to address the high crime rate in tribal communities and the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which included a historic provision to allow the nation’s 566 federally recognized tribes to prosecute non-Indians who commit certain crimes of violence against Native women.
The officials familiar with plans for his trip next month spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. A White House spokesman declined comment.
It is unusual for a U.S. president to travel to Indian country, according to tribal leaders.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, home to Wounded Knee Creek, the infamous site where at least 150 Lakota Sioux men, women and children were massacred by U.S. soldiers in 1890. He was the first sitting president to visit a reservation since Franklin D. Roosevelt visited a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina in 1936.
It’s unclear which reservation Obama will visit. His senior policy adviser for Native American affairs, Jodi Gillette, is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, where her brother is the chairman.
“I would be excited at the prospect of having a president visit an Indian reservation to see some of the challenges and opportunities in Indian country,” said former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who created the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute after he left the Senate to focus on problems facing Indian youths, especially the high suicide rates.
In one of the broadest studies of its kind, Attorney General Eric Holder last year created a national task force to examine violence and its impact on American Indian and Alaska Native children, and Dorgan is the co-chair of the task force’s advisory committee.
“Each year of his presidency, Obama has held tribal nations conferences that have been very beneficial,” Dorgan said. “It would be a logical extension and equally beneficial for him to see firsthand what is happening on Indian reservations.”
In 2008, Obama became one of the few presidential candidates to ever visit a reservation when he traveled to Crow Nation in Montana. Robert Kennedy campaigned on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge in 1968 and visited Wounded Knee.
When Obama was at Crow Nation, a couple formally adopted him and gave him the Indian name Barack “Black Eagle,” which means “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”
While there, Obama told the tribe that he wanted to acknowledge the “tragic history” of Native Americans over the past three centuries. They “never asked for much, only what was promised by the treaty obligations of their forebears,” he said, as he promised to honor the treaties.
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