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In Obama We Have Someone Who Will Listen to Us

Wary tribal leaders discuss role, priorities with new administration

Navajo Times, News Feature, Chee Brossy Posted: Jan 21, 2009

WASHINGTON -- Leaders from many tribes convened at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, near Washington, D.C., on Monday to discuss the role Indian Country will have in the upcoming Obama administration.

In a meeting that lasted four hours, a number of panels assembled by the National Congress of American Indians discussed the economy, gaming and legislative priorities for the 111th Congress.

Panelists spoke about working together to keep a "united front" on the important issues affecting Indian Country to better affect the change to which the Obama administration constantly points.

Joe Garcia, of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and president of NCAI, said the atmosphere of excitement in the room comes from the inclusive attitude that President-elect Barack Obama has brought to federal-Native American relations in his campaign.

"What's different about (Obama compared to Bush) is what's up here," Garcia said, pointing to his head. "His logistics and approach to Native issues is totally different. We're working hand in hand rather than trying to communicate at a distance.

"We never met with the Bush administration in the transition period," he added. "We've always been an afterthought."

Wizipan Garriott, an advisor on Native American issues for Obama's transition team, echoed the sentiment that Obama is good for Native Americans like no other president before him.

"We have someone who will listen to us, so we need to push even harder," said Garriott.
During his campaign, Obama promised to treat tribes as states and to hold annual meetings with tribal leaders at the White House. Obama also pledged to create a senior cabinet-level position, filled by a Native American, whose job would be act as his advisor on Native issues.

After Monday's meeting, Mary Kim Titla, San Carlos Apache, said although there is a positive feeling now that Obama is about to be sworn in, many tribal leaders are wary of what to expect, seeing the promises made during the campaign as almost too good to be true.

"Obama is offering more than any other candidate has ever offered," Titla said. "People are excited to see what happens with that. But people want to be able to speak directly to Obama rather than being sent to his staffers and never reaching him."

Titla, who ran for the congress in Arizona's congressional District 1 but lost in the primary, said her experience running for office opened her eyes to the political world, providing her an insider's view of what goes on.

Titla said there is often a disconnect between elected politicians and their constituents, and between congressmen and tribal leaders especially.

"I think people here are anxious," said Titla. "Many times tribal leaders come to Washington to see congressmen and end up just meeting with staffers.

"That's why we need more Native American members of Congress," she added.

Titla, who previously worked in broadcast journalism, has no plans to run for Congress again, but has not ruled it out, she said. Currently she has focused on returning to the San Carlos Apache community where she substitute teaches and runs an online magazine geared toward youth, Native Youth Magazine.

Some have criticized the tribes' attitude toward the Obama administration as overly optimistic, but Garcia said there are plenty of reasons to believe that things are looking up for federal-tribal relations.
"We asked for a quick appointment for secretary of the Interior, and we got that with (Ken) Salazar already," said Garcia. "So he is acting on things.

"But we can't leave it to chance, we have to drive the efforts to communicate with (the Obama administration)," he added.

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