Iraq overshadows president’s visit to Native Americans

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CANNON BALL, N.D. — Hours after adjourning a tense Oval Office meeting about the Iraq crisis, President Barack Obama found himself on the ancestral lands of Chief Sitting Bull, taking part in a celebration to honor Native Americans who have served in America’s foreign wars.

On a windswept plain next to the Missouri River, dancers and drummers from the Sioux and other tribes, encircled by American flags, created a pulsing swirl of color and noise as Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, nodded their heads in time to the music.

In his first visit to an American Indian reservation as president, Mr. Obama told the raucous crowd of 1,800 people that he had delivered on his promise as a presidential candidate in 2008 to improve relations between the government and the nation’s tribes.

“There’s no denying that for some Americans, the deck’s been stacked against them, sometimes for generations, and that’s been true of many Native Americans,” the president said. “But if we’re working together, we can make things better.”

Mr. Obama announced a series of modest education initiatives to improve schools for Indian children. Before the flag ceremony, the Obamas met with high school students at a school on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to hear about the pressures they face growing up here.

Tribal leaders praised Mr. Obama and presented him with a ceremonial blanket with an eight-point red, white and blue star. “No other president comes close to the honesty and compassion he has shown for our tribal nations,” said David Archambault II, one of the leaders.

It was a rare respite for a president lurching from crisis to crisis. Mr. Obama tried out a few words in the Lakota language and held children in his arms during the farewell ceremony.

But he also encountered pressure on a familiar front, as some of the leaders and protesters urged him to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and other oil-sand pipelines, which they say would devastate their land, water, climate and treaty rights.

“Keystone is a death warrant for our people,” Bryan Brewer, a leader of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said in a statement. “President Obama must reject this pipeline and protect our sacred land and water.”

Mr. Obama is the fourth sitting president to visit a reservation, and the first to make such a trip since Bill Clinton in 1999. As a candidate in 2008, Mr. Obama courted the votes of Native Americans and visited the Crow Nation in Montana, where he was given an Indian name, Black Eagle.“This election is about Indian country,” Mr. Obama declared at the time.

But Friday’s long-planned visit was shadowed by the deepening crisis in Iraq. Some commentators questioned why Mr. Obama had gone ahead with the four-day trip, which includes a getaway with Michelle Obama in Palm Springs, Calif., at a time when he is seriously weighing whether to return U.S. warplanes to combat in Iraq.

White House officials insisted that the president could keep a close eye on the crisis from the road. They said he was in touch with his national security staff and could call foreign leaders or consult with members of Congress from North Dakota or California.

Mr. Obama did not bring along a senior national security adviser, as he did during a weekend in Key Largo, Fla., in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, when he was joined by his deputy national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken. This situation is different, a senior official said, because his advisers are busy drafting military options in Washington.

Beyond the White House assertion that the president did not have to upend his schedule for this crisis, officials said he did not want to stand up Native American leaders. “The president discussed making a trip to Indian country during the campaign,” said  White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, “so this is making good on an important promise.”

The administration says it has compiled a solid record of helping the Native American population. In 2010, to crack down on chronically high violent-crime rates on reservations, particularly against women, Mr. Obama signed the Tribal Law and Order Act, which expanded the authority of tribal law enforcement agencies and courts to hand down sentences. The government has also settled tribal legal disputes and tried to improve education standards for students from Native American families by strengthening teacher training and wiring often-remote schools with high-speed digital technology.

But the problems in the Native American population are as deep-seated as ever, as Mr. Obama acknowledged in an opinion article published last week in Indian Country Today, in which he announced the trip. Poverty rates among Native Americans are as much as 60 percent higher than among the general population, the president wrote, while dropout rates are twice the national average.

“These numbers are a moral call to action,” Mr. Obama said. “As long as I have the honor of serving as president, I’ll do everything I can to answer that call.”

Middle East - Barack Obama - Bill Clinton - Iraq - Michelle Obama - Josh Earnest


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