President Barack Obama has yet to fill a number of key posts in his administration. For Native Americans, one of the most anticipated positions will be a senior policy advisor to the president on Native American issues. American Indians say having someone close to the president will ensure that their issues will not be swept under the rug.
First lady Michelle Obama was greeted by traditional drumming at her visit to the Department of the Interior Monday, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This bureau is in charge of administering land held in trust for sovereign tribes across the United States. Historically, the relationship between the federal government and Indian tribes has been rocky, but Mrs. Obama reiterated her husband's campaign pledge to build a stronger relationship with tribal leaders.
"And for those of you focused on meeting the federal government's obligations to the Native Americans, understand you have a wonderful partner in the White House right now," she said.
The enthusiasm for Mrs. Obama and her husband is evidenced by the numbers. Ninety-five percent of Native Americans who voted last November supported President Obama. All across Indian country, many hope his administration will finally address problems that have plagued their communities for decades, including inadequate healthcare, neglected schools, crime and substance abuse.
President Obama acknowledged these stark realities on a campaign stop at a Crow reservation in Montana last May, but pledged to do things differently.
"Few have been ignored by Washington for as as long as Native Americans, the first Americans," said then Senator Obama
President of the National Congress of American Indians, Joe Garcia, said he took Mr. Obama at his word. Garcia gave his final "State of the Indian Nations" address Tuesday, imploring the new Congress and administration to include Native Americans in the economic recovery.
"While the United States faces an economy in recession, great swaths of Indian country have been in economic depression for decades," he said. "Many of our communities comprise the poorest counties in the country."
Garcia also called on Congress to reauthorize the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, which expired in 1997. Garcia says the infant mortality rate for Native Americans is 40 percent higher than among other Americans, Native youths are twice as likely to commit suicide, and their life expectancy is five years less than that of other Americans.
"For 10 years the federal government has failed not only do the right thing, they failed to uphold their obligation," he said. "The result is that Native people are suffering."
The tension between Native Americans and the government is part of the reason American Indians started getting involved in state politics. Washington State Representative John McCoy is chairman of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators. He says the idea behind electing American Indians within state governments is that it was usually easier for tribes to deal with the state than the federal government. If their legislative priorities are passed through the state, there's the hope it will be adopted federally as well.
Even so, McCoy, a member of the Tulalip tribes, says he and his constituents are optimistic about the new administration.
"I'm hopeful because under the Clinton administration we made some headway," he said. "We were getting some of our issues addressed, not all of them. But you know we were doing the best we could. And then when Bush Two came along, all that stopped. We lost all momentum; in essence we took a couple steps back."
McCoy says he has already seen some encouraging signs, including the appointment of a Native American to the White House Governmental Affairs office. He says what will make the difference is if American Indians are put in senior positions where they can affect policy for the betterment of all Native people.