Natives Hope Obama Will Be Their President, Too
By Haider Rizvi
NEW YORK, Nov 24 (IPS) - During his election campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly said that he cared about the issues facing Native American communities and insisted that they could trust him -- pledges that Native leaders are now watching closely as the president-elect appoints a new cabinet and fills other key federal posts.
So far, Obama has named six native political figures to his transition team -- half of them assigned to assist in Interior Department policy, budget and personnel changes.
"We're lucky to have such stellar representatives with people with whom Indian Country has really good relationships," said Jacqueline Johnson-Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit organisation that represents more than 250 tribes.
Native advocates Mary Smith, Mary McNeil and Yvette Robideaux have been assigned to work on justice, agriculture and health issues, while three current and former attorneys with the Native American Rights Fund -- John Echohawk, Keith Harper and Robert Anderson -- will advise Obama on changes proposed within the Interior Department.
The Natives, also known as "American Indians", have their own sovereign governments, which the United States recognises in accordance with its constitution and under treaty obligations. However, as the Native leaders observe, their communities have always suffered from inattention during the transition and early years of past U.S. administrations.
"If appointments and major policy decisions are delayed for extended periods, the long-term issues in Indian Country are left unaddressed and handed on to the next administration," said Johnson-Pata. .
In her view, "any significant reform efforts must be planned during the transition and start at the beginning of an administration if they are to succeed."
As he continued to reach out to new voting blocs past summer, Obama made a campaign stop at an Indian reservation in Montana, where he told the audience that, as an African-American, he identified with their struggles.
"I know what it's like to not always have been respected or to have been ignored and I know what it's like to struggle and that's how I think many of you understand what's happened here on the reservation," Obama said.
In his speech, Obama added: "A lot of times you have been forgotten, just like African-Americans have been forgotten or other groups in this country have been forgotten."
Statistics show that the indigenous communities, which constitute about one percent of the U.S. population, are among the most marginalised sections of society with regard to health care, education and employment.
In March 2006 and again in March 2008, a panel of U.N. experts analysed the U.S. government's treatment of indigenous Americans and ruled that it was guilty of racial discrimination.
In its 2008 report, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) also urged the U.S. to sign onto the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the current administration has continued to reject despite the fact it has been approved by a vast majority of the U.N. member states.
Indigenous rights activists say they hope that the Obama administration would endorse the declaration, which recognised the rights of the indigenous peoples around the world to control their lands and resources and be able to freely practice their belief systems and traditional values without interference from outside forces.
During the Nov. 4 presidential election, a vast majority of Native people voted for Obama, according to Frank LaMere of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, who led the American Indian delegation to the Democratic Convention.
"Obama has stood with us and it is now time that we stand with him," he said in a statement, describing the Natives' interest in the political process as unprecedented. "Indian country has responded to the Democratic message of change and the need for urgency."
"We have many who go without because our leaders have failed us. This election means much to them. Obama understands this while others remain oblivious. Let us, as Native people, help him."
On the campaign trail in Montana, Obama was adopted as an honourary member of the Crow tribe, a ceremony that native activists say is reserved for special dignitaries. On that occasion, he was given a new name, "Barack Black Eagle".
Many activists fighting for the rights of indigenous people say they are hoping that the Obama administration would also re-examine the case of Leonard Peltier, the legendary hero of the American Indian Movement who has been behind bars for nearly four decades.
Peltier was arrested after a shootout between American Indian militants and federal agents in Pine Ridge in 1975. Some 60 natives were killed along with two FBI agents. Peltier has consistently refused to claim his innocence and considers his imprisonment an act of racism.
Over the years, a number of world-renowned figures, including the South African Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called for Peltier's release, but in vain. According to Amnesty International, Peltier is a "prisoner of conscience".
Just three months before the election, Peltier sent a letter to the president-elect from his jail cell, expressing his interest in Obama's candidacy. "Your election as president of the United States, where slaves and Indians were long considered less than human under the law, will undoubtedly constitute a historic moment in race relations in the United States," he wrote.
However, at the same time, he did not hesitate to warn Obama against opportunism. "Symbolism alone will not bring about change," wrote Peltier. "Our young people, black and Native alike, suffer from police brutality and racial profiling."
"I am, however, concerned that your recent statement on the Sean Bell verdict, in which the New York police officers who fired 50 shots at a young man on the eve of his wedding were acquitted of criminal charges, displays a rather myopic view of the law," said Peltier.
On April 26, when asked to explain his views on the case, Obama said: "Well, look, obviously there was a tragedy in New York. I said at the time, without benefit of all the facts before me that it looked like a possible case of excessive force. The judge has made his ruling, and we're a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down."
That is not how the hero of the indigenous peoples of the land looks at how the U.S. political and legal system works.
"Until the law is harnessed to protect the victims of state violence and racism, it will serve as an instrument of repression, just as the slave codes functioned to sustain and legitimise an inhuman institution," Peltier wrote in the letter.
Still, Obama has reached out more to the Native community than most others with presidential aspirations.
"We will never be able to undo the wrongs that were committed against Native Americans, but what we can do is make sure that we have a president who's committed to doing what's right with Native Americans, being full partners, respecting, honouring, working with you," Obama told the Native crowd back in May.
"That's the commitment that I'm making to you, and since now I'm a member of the family, you know that I won't break my commitment." he said. The question many Natives are now asking is: Will he?