Tulalip Tribes Chairman Mel Sheldon had a second-row seat to history Thursday as President Barack Obama kept his promise to sit down and talk with tribal leaders from across the nation.
Obama delivered the opening and closing remarks at the White House Tribal Nations Conference that focused on challenges facing American Indians such as economic development, education, health care and housing
Obama spoke with officials from nearly all the nation’s 564 federally recognized tribes. Twenty-seven of Washington’s 29 tribes were represented, including the Stillaguamish and Sauk-Suiattle tribes.
“What a day,” Sheldon said in a phone interview during a break in the event held at the Department of Interior. “He’s done his homework on issues affecting Indian people.”
Obama, as a presidential candidate, pledged to hold an annual summit with American Indian leaders and Thursday’s event buoyed the spirits of those in the auditorium.
“There were eight years of Republican leadership when there was not a whole lot of listening to tribes,” Sheldon said. “There is and continues to be a lot of optimism that the president is keeping his promise by having this day with us.”
Several cabinet members along with high- ranking administration officials participated in the conference, including Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former Washington state governor.
The event was conducted as a daylong town hall meeting with tribal leaders allowed to make comments and pose tough questions to top federal officials.
“They all came prepared. They knew our challenges. They were letting us tell them what we see as our problems and they were letting us share what we think the solutions are,” Sheldon said.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton convened a similar conference. He issued an executive order calling for increased consultation between his administration and tribes. However, not every cabinet agency responded and Clinton caught flak for the lack of follow-up.
Obama praised the groundwork of his Democratic predecessor as he signed a new directive giving cabinet agencies 90 days to come up with detailed plans for improving tribal consultation.
Sheldon is confident there will be better results than before.
“What we’re saying to ourselves here is that this is our first meeting with (Obama) and he’s stepping up to the plate,” he said. “This next year will tell us how well he is at keeping his word.”
Thursday wasn’t the only important event for American Indian leaders in the nation’s capital this week.
On Tuesday, Sheldon and Tulalip Tribal Council member Glen Gobin attended the dedication of the Hall of Indian Nations. This is the new home of the National Congress of American Indians, a longtime national voice of tribes and an organizer of the conference.
“It was a sense of arrival,” Sheldon said. “We now have our own building. Being on Embassy Row helps solidify this government-to-government relationship.”
Gobin said it will become a place where tribal members from across the country can discuss issues amongst themselves and with leaders of the Obama administration and foreign countries.
“I see it as another step in recognizing that we (tribes) are sovereign governments that need to be treated as such,” he said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com.