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Obama pledges to ‘break old cycles’ for native youths

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MIKE NOWATZKI

Forum News Service

CANNON BALL, N.D. — President Barack Obama pledged to invest in American Indian youth here Friday during the first visit by a sitting president to a reservation in 15 years, telling a powwow crowd of about 1,800 people that by working together they can “break old cycles” and “give our children a better future.”

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Native American dancers in traditional regalia performed for the president and first lady Michelle Obama, who smiled and laughed as some of the children stopped to shake hands and show off their colorful outfits donned for Cannon Ball’s Flag Day Celebration Wacipi on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

In a 12-minute speech, Obama said he’s proud the government-to-government relationship between Washington and tribal nations “is stronger than ever.” But said he wanted to focus on work that lies ahead, including building more economic opportunity in Indian Country and improving schools.

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

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault, who wore a traditional feathered headdress as he and his wife led the president and first lady into the packed powwow arbor, said before introducing Obama that tribes have experienced decades of broken treaties and promises, lands taken and cultures threatened.

But he said he’s encouraged that the administration is looking for ways to better serve native youths after decades of neglect, crumbling schools and underfunding.

“I know that all the challenges of Indian Country cannot be solved in one visit,” he said. “But this is a historic step in our sovereign relationship … and I hope this sets a precedent for more regular visits to Indian Country, only because I believe this trip will inspire our youth, it will provide a spark of hope to our returning veterans and it will strengthen our tribal communities.”

Historic visit

Obama is the first sitting president to visit Indian Country since President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1999 and only the third to do so in the last 80 years, and the historic nature of his visit wasn’t lost on Cannon Ball residents or the other tribal members and leaders from North Dakota and South Dakota who attended.

Standing in her uncle’s driveway with about 20 relatives, Alycia Yellow Eyes, 34, of Mandan, shot video with her cell phone and waved as the president’s ride, Marine One, and six other helicopters descended shortly before 3 p.m. on a grassy field below a residential area of the community of about 900 people.

“I never thought I’d see a president landing in our front yard, you know?” she said.

Across the field, 19-year-olds Austin Kelly and Christopher Ell and others had prepared to watch the president’s landing from the back of a pickup truck on the lawn of Kelly’s Bar.

“I don’t think Cannon Ball’s been noticed ever ‘til today,” Ell said.

At Cannonball Elementary School, the president and first lady met with tribal youths for a roundtable discussion that was closed to the press. They were expected to hear about the challenges facing the young people, what it’s like to grow up in Indian Country and their hopes for the future, according to the White House.

Obama referred to the meeting during his speech, saying the youngsters talked about the challenges of living in two worlds as being both “Native” and “American,” getting personal when he added that he and the first lady also grew up at times “feeling like we were on the outside looking in.” He said the nation must invest in native children, “and that starts from the White House all the way down here.”

While he didn’t mention it during his speech, the White House noted the president’s 2015 budget proposes a more than $3 billion increase over 2009’s level of support to tribal communities, American Indians and Alaska natives.

Obama also stressed the need to create jobs and support small businesses to give young tribal members the chance to live, work and raise families on the reservation. North Dakota boasted the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in April, at 2.6 percent, but Standing Rock’s jobless rate currently hovers at around 60 percent and the poverty rate is roughly 40 percent, tribal officials said this week.

Ell said he’s currently unemployed, working on his GED and trying to get a job at the tribe’s Prairie Nights Casino. Kelly is involved in a church leadership program that has him working with kids and considering a career as a counselor, but right now, “I’m looking toward the military,” he said.

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