BACK IN June, President Barack Obama made a presidential visit to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, located in North and South Dakota–his first such trip since becoming president.
The people of Standing Rock are part of the Hunkpapa band of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe and are ancestors of Sitting Bull, one of the most famous Native resisters to expansion–he was a leader in the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho victory over the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.
Obama is only the fourth sitting president to make an official visit to an Indian reservation. Calvin Coolidge was the first–in 1927, he went to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota after signing the Indian Citizenship Act that granted some Natives citizenship. FDR made his way to North Carolina’s Cherokee reservation in 1936 after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and more recently, Bill Clinton visited Pine Ridge in 1999.
But that’s only official visits. As T. Robert Przeklasa at the Indian Country Today website, every time Obama has gone to Palm Springs, Calif., he’s been to the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation. In fact, Obama has been greeted at the Palm Springs airport by Jeff Grubble, chair of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, three times this year. As Przeklasa writes:
The Agua Caliente Indian Reservation consists of a notorious “Golden Checkerboard.”…[E]very other square mile of the city of Palm Springs (including the airport) and much of neighboring Cathedral City is reservation land. The area has long been a playground for the rich and famous, including presidents. Author Ray Mungo noted that every commander-in-chief since Harry S. Truman has visited the valley, and with the airport on reservation lands, however unwittingly, they have all visited Indian Country.
Of course, these weren’t formal visits like the one to Standing Rock. But the presidential habit of passing through an airport on reservation land can be seen as a reflection of the seriousness with which the U.S. takes nation-to-nation relationships.
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DESPITE THIS fact, for Native Americans around the country, Obama’s trip to Standing Rock was a long awaited visit. Native Americans were one voting block that helped get Obama elected, and many viewed his commitment to Native peoples as dramatically surpassing his predecessors–which isn’t hard to do in the U.S. Obama made a famous visit to Crow Country in Montana during his first campaign in 2008–he was adopted by the Crow Nation and given the name Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish or “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”
On July 29, 2013, Obama held the first Council on Native American Affairs, a body established by his executive order–though without one single tribal leader being present. At the council, according to reports, he boosted the various pieces of legislation and executive orders he has pushed for.
One bill he helped pass was the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2011. Rather than direct money to fulfilling treaties or helping with unemployment or the housing crisis on reservations and in urban centers, the legislation funnels more money to tribal police. It is quite ironic to see this promoted as a gain for Indian Country.
Another legislative landmark for Obama was the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act–the law has significant limitations, but this version did extend tribal authority to prosecute non-Natives who come onto reservations and commit acts of sexual violence. According to the Indian Law Resources Center, 88 percent of acts of violence against Native women are committed by non-Native men. This extension wouldn’t have happened if not for Native women pushing for it over many years.
Though some of Obama’s policies have materially benefited tribes, they can be more accurately viewed as lip service to the issue, without talking seriously about treaty rights, high unemployment rates, poverty, historical injustices and the current land grabs for more resource extraction.
On these more pressing concerns for Native Americans, Obama has been on the wrong side.
One clear example is the Keystone XL pipeline. When he came to Standing Rock, Obama was also greeted with a protest about the pipeline, which is planned to go through western North and South Dakota–an area intended to be the Great Sioux Reservation under the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, but later split up into six reservations.
The pipeline won’t go through any reservations in the area today, but this land is still disputed, and Natives in the area have been on the front lines of resistance to the pipeline. Obama refused during his visit to give any update on whether he would give a final green light to construction of pipeline.
Expectations are so low for the U.S. relationship with tribal nations that when any politician shows an interest at all, it’s viewed as positive. But we should have a broader critique.
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FIRST OF all, these nations don’t have anything approaching sovereignty and self-determination.
During the process of colonization, England, Spain, France and later the U.S. government made treaties with Native Americans. Some were peace treaties, others were based on land theft, but they were seen as agreements between two nations. These treaties were systematically violated by the federal government to facilitate the expansion of U.S. territory, the powers of big business and so on.
Treaty-making with tribal nations ended in 1871, when Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act, which declared that “no Indian nation or tribe” would be recognized “as an independent nation, tribe or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” This solidified the foundation of the U.S. nation-state and effectively made Native Americans “wards” of that state.
Today, the U.S. relationship with tribal nations–the tribal nations that are federally recognized, that is–is administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA manages over 55 million acres of lands, in trust with tribal governments.
The BIA was established in 1824 under the name Office of Indian Affairs, within the War Department. It wasn’t until 1849 that the office got transferred to the Department of the Interior, where the BIA is located today. In 1947, the office was renamed the BIA. It wasn’t until 1934 that Natives even had tribal governments on the reservations–as part of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, all tribal governments had to be approved by the federal government.
Ever since its establishment, the BIA and its predecessor agencies have been viewed like an occupying force. Federal agents were appointed to rule with an iron fist on the reservations–they would distribute food, restrict movement and hunting, and control the people, all on their say so.
The federal government was also in charge of the Indian school program, which ripped Native children from their homes and forced them into boarding schools, often thousands of miles away.
In these schools, the basic premise was to “Kill the Indian, save the man.” These were trade schools, which were seen as a way to assimilate Native children into U.S. society, where they could become another working-class cog to generate more capital. Children weren’t allowed to speak their language, practice their culture or have any contact with their families–if they broke these rules, they were often beaten. This was about as destructive as any massacre the tribes had faced in previous decades.
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THOUGH SUCH crimes are typically viewed as the work of the “white man,” it’s important to understand that ruling class interests drove the government’s policies toward Native Americans. Working class whites, especially immigrants from European countries, were viewed in a similar fashion, as just cogs in the system to produce profit.
It was on the basis of the class system of exploitation that ruling class encouraged the ideology of white supremacy to divide working-class whites from African Americans, both during and after slavery, and from Indigenous people. But despite these efforts, there is a rich history of fights against oppression and multiracial struggles.
In the 1940s and ’50s, for example, Native Americans were already fighting for treaty, fishing and hunting rights. During this same era, the BIA was in charge of helping motivate Natives to move off reservations and into the cities, so the federal government could wash its hands of their responsibilities. Though this policy accelerated the process of the urbanization of Native communities, many had already been pushed into cities by industrialization.
But Natives who moved to the cities didn’t get the jobs they were promised. They often lived in what were called Red Ghettos in cities like Minneapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and other Western cities. This policy had an unintended effect of bringing thousands of Natives from different tribes together and laying the foundations for a pan-Indian movement.
Out of this–and building on the legacy of past movements–came the rise of the Red Power movement and the launching of organizations like the American Indian Movement (AIM). The Red Power movement brought some of the historical grievances back to the surface with their actions–including the takeover of BIA offices in Washington in 1972. The occupiers issued a list of 20 demands, including the restoration of treaty-making, all Indians to be governed by treaty relations, the return of 110 million acres of land taken away from Native nations, and abolition of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
More recently, Native resistance has found a home in the climate justice movement, where Natives are on the front lines of the struggle against environmental destruction. This current of the movement is bringing the issues of treaties back into the spotlight as projects like the Keystone XL cross through historic treaty land with no consultation from tribal nations.
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WHAT CAN be said about Barack Obama’s actions on questions related to Native Americans? Considering the government’s support for exploitation of energy sources on Native land, it’s hard to say that Obama represents anything other than an old status quo.
The austerity measures carried out by the federal government under Barack Obama have hit Native Americans particularly hard. According to a New York Times report, Deborah Jackson-Dennison, superintendent of the Window Rock Unified School District in Navajo Nation, “is in the process of reducing the school budget to about $17 million, from about $24 million, absorbing a cut from sequestration as well as from the local government. ‘It’s like getting two black eyes at once,’ she said. She has let go of 14 employees, and moved the school district down to four buildings from seven.”
Tribes argue that they shouldn’t be affected by such austerity measures because of treaty promises made by the U.S. government in the past. The issue isn’t just about the level of funding from the federal government, but about a nation-to-nation relationship, in which the U.S. keeps its word.
If the U.S. were to take its relationship with Native Nations seriously, it would give reparations, fulfill treaty rights and consult these nations when building pipeline like the Keystone–something Obama didn’t even pay lip service to until the project was already in motion.
We can’t trust a government and economy founded on exploitation and the destruction and dispossession of a people to do any of this on its own. We need to challenge the structures in place that bent against self-determination and sovereignty.