In the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency, there is a near-palpable sense of urgency in his executive actions to protect civil and environmental rights from the incoming administration. He instituted a new rule that essentially prevents anti-abortion Republicans from defunding Planned Parenthood. He dismantled the inactive program from the post-9/11 era tracking Muslim and Arab men that could have been the building blocks of a “Muslim registry.” He partnered with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ban offshore oil and gas drilling in vast swathes of the Arctic and Atlantic waters. And in its latest move, the Obama administration designated two new national monuments in Utah and Nevada to protect environmental conservation efforts as well as sacred Native American sites.
The move ignited outrage from Republicans because it bars development of huge areas in the west, but for Native Americans, it marks yet another important victory for their rights. Racking up a record as a champion of Native American rights, Obama shifted the federal government’s attitude towards tribes from acrimonious and dismissive to receptive and often engaging.
“Few have been ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans — the first Americans,” he told members of the Crow Nation in Montana in 2008. Eight years on, Obama made his mark as a president who arguably paid more attention to their plight than any other president in at least a generation, proving himself to be a true ally to Native Americans.
The designation of Bears Ears and Gold Butte National Monuments.
This could be Obama’s final service as president to Native Americans. Bears Ears National Monument will cover 1.35 million acres of land in Utah. In Nevada, the Gold Butte National Monument — the site of Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff with officials for his refusal to recognize federal authority over the government-owned land — will take up 300,000 acres.
An inter-tribal commission comprising the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, and Pueblo of Zuni will be established to advise the management of Bears Ears, marking the first time that Native Americans will have a role in protecting a national monument.
“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said, according to the Washington Post. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.”
Helping to reroute the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Following a year of progressive setbacks, the Standing Rock Sioux Nation won an important victory when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that they will look at alternate routes for the controversial pipeline. #NoDAPL protesters were against the pipeline because it skirted Standing Rock’s sacred prayer sites and posed a threat to their clean water source.
“I appreciate very much President Obama listening to the Native American people and millions of others who believe this pipeline should not be built,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avid supporter of #NoDAPL, said in a statement after the announcement. “In the year 2016, we should not continue to trample on Native American sovereignty. We should not endanger the water supply of millions of people.”
Listening to Native American youth.
In 2014, Obama and the First Lady traveled to North Dakota and met privately with a group of students from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The Obamas listened to their personal struggles with homelessness, poverty, suicide, and alcoholism — issues that plague many Native tribes — and reportedly emerged from the lunch meeting stunned and deeply emotional.
Obama described himself as “shaken” afterwards. “Some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry,” he said. “And it was heartbreaking.”
The meeting prompted Obama to direct his administration to reform the Native American educational system and concentrate on improving conditions for the communities’ youth, according to the Washington Post.
“It’s not very often where I tear up in the Oval Office,” Obama said about speaking to his staff about the encounter. “I deal with a lot of bad stuff in this job. It is not very often where I get choked up, so they knew I was serious about this.”
Financial settlements with tribes amounting to billions of dollars.
Over the years, the Obama administration settled numerous lawsuits with American Indian tribes over the federal government’s mismanagement of funds and lands. According to the New York Times, the government currently holds more than 100,000 leases to manage some 56 million acres of resource-rich lands that have historically been exploited from tribes.
After the government agreed to pay $492 million to 17 tribes over mismanagement of tribal resources and assets, Melody McCoy, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said:
This is historical mismanagement, but it’s also a historical settlement. … We expected these cases to be in litigation forever against the federal government. Settlements weren’t anything we expected until a guy named Barack Obama changed all that.
Strengthening the relationship between the federal government and tribal leaders.
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Obama set out to distinguish his administration as one that actively engaged Native Americans in policies meant to help them. The creation of the White House Tribal Leaders Conference facilitated discussion between the two entities with a long history of estrangement.
His administration has been credited with expanding the Violence Against Women law to protect Native American women; boosting health coverage for American Indians through Obamacare; seeking to increase the budget for Native American education; and personally encouraging Native youth to succeed.
In September, during the final Tribal Leaders Conference, Obama told the audience:
Today, the most important thing I want to say is thank you. After almost eight years as your president, I have been so privileged to learn from you and spend time with many of you while visiting more tribal communities than any other president. … My trips to your nations and communities are days that I will never forget.