An Open Letter to President Obama from Indian Country

Word on the back roads of the American heartland is that you may be making a journey to North Dakota this June, and that your purpose will be to visit one or more of North Dakota's four Indian reservations.

Welcome to North Dakota, Mr. President. The fact that you intend to do this at all has great historical significance. As you know, sitting Presidents don't tend to visit Indian reservations. The last one to do so was President Bill Clinton in 1999—Wounded Knee and the Pine Ridge in South Dakota. And the one before that was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936—the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina. You get thousands of invitations per week. With the clock ticking louder each day in your second term, that you have chosen to take the time to visit Indian Country somewhere out in the middle of nowhere is a tribute to your leadership and high seriousness, Mr. President, an honor to the state of North Dakota, and a historic gift to the Indian peoples of America.

Nevertheless, you must know that a well-intentioned dropping in to an Indian reservation is something of a paradox, Mr. President. You are all too well aware of the limited value of a quick drop-in-fly-out Presidential visit to any small community. Under the best of circumstances, such affairs are long on symbolism and photo op, and very short on substance. What can you learn by flying into Bismarck, being helicoptered to the Rez, where a 27-car armored motorcade waits for you to land, the roads lined with patrol cars and sharpshooters? And then scores of VIP's (many of whom spend very little time on Indian reservations) lined up to shake the presidential hand? The bloated entourage of the modern Imperial Presidency is hard on any welcoming community, but in view of the sad history of federal troop presence in Indian Country, the sudden arrival of such stern and obsessive federal firepower is likely to create some discomfort and misunderstanding. And all the instantaneous gawking (by national media reps, presidential advisers, and the usual presidential camp followers) may upset the people who actually make their lives on the reservation.

Ideally, you would come alone, with former U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan, North Dakota's U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon, and North Dakota novelist Louise Erdrich at your side. The fact that such an idea is now regarded as ludicrous tells you how much any President of the United States is now cut off from the people he would like to meet—and help.

My hope is that you will do four things to make this visit meaningful. 1. Prepare carefully. 2. Come with a minimal entourage. 3. Spend 95% of your time just listening. And 4. Follow up with a series of quiet White House summits in which a wide range of American Indian leaders and average tribal citizens can speak their minds without being rushed. You need to go quiet in the White House Treaty Room, and invite your guests to speak truth to power.

Here's how I would suggest you prepare. Your White House staff, including North Dakota's own Jodi Gillette of the Standing Rock, will brief you on the many challenges of Indian Country: unemployment, teen suicide, domestic violence, diabetes and obesity, sexual abuse, drug and sex trafficking, alcoholism, inadequate housing, checkerboarding, etc. They will also brief you on many of the good things happening on Great Plains reservations: cultural renewal, tribal colleges, the rise of a well-trained generation of lawyers, doctors, nurses, and college professors, a lessening of poverty, cautious land re-acquisition programs, etc. When you land, you should put yourself into the hands of Tim Purdon, who has distinguished himself among the nation's 93 U.S. Attorneys for his thoughtful, idealistic, and preserving commitment to better conditions on North Dakota's Indian reservations.

You should also take the time to read three books and one speech, Mr. President. Thomas Powers' The Killing of Crazy Horse (2011) is not primarily about North Dakota, but it is a superb introduction to the Euro-American conquest of the Great Plains and its legacy. Paul van Develder's Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation (Oct 15, 2007) tells the story of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' attempt to tame the Missouri River by building one of its principal dams (Garrison) precisely where it would do the most damage to the rich heart of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, flooding 155,000 acres of superb Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara farmland without even minimal consultation with the tribes, and a "compensation package" that is a monument to white arrogance, indifference, and racism.

But I am especially eager for you to read Thurston Clarke's The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America. It's a day-by-day account of the last three months of Robert Kennedy's life, before he was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. It turns out that RFK spent a significant amount of time during that pell mell campaign on Indian reservations—much to the bewilderment and (eventually) rage of his campaign staff. Just weeks before the crucial California primary, he chose to fly to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where he spent a whole day talking with an Oglala child named Christopher Pretty Boy in the family's modest cabin. His staff members were tearing their hair out, of course, arguing that there was no political gain in spending time with American Indians. But RFK had moral courage and a great passion for justice. Within a year, both Kennedy and Pretty Boy were dead.

You might also wish to read Ian Frazier's On the Rez (2001); and Louise Erdrich's award-winning novel The Round House (2013). But we know how busy you are, Mr. President, and the only President in American history who could read a book a day was Theodore Roosevelt. (As you know, he spent the better part of four years in the badlands of North Dakota when he was a young man (1883-1887), and that experience transformed him into one of America's greatest Presidents. You should go see TR's Elkhorn Ranch while you are here. It may change your life; it would almost certainly change ours!).

The speech you should read was delivered by Attorney General Robert Kennedy on September 13, 1963, right here in Bismarck, at the National Congress of American Indians. Kennedy summarized the problems North Dakota's Indians faced, declared unequivocally that "the blame and the guilt must rest with the white man," and then outlined a ten-point program to improve the lives of Indians throughout the United States. His conclusion? "That these conditions can be allowed to prevail among a people uniquely entitled to call themselves the first Americans--a people whose civilization flourished here for centuries before the name 'America' was thought of--this is nothing less than a National disgrace."

In many respects, that speech could just as appropriately have been delivered on September 13, 2013, fully fifty years after the great Attorney General ventured out to the middle of nowhere, against the urgings of his Justice Department staff, because, as he put it in the margin of the invitation letter, "I just like Indians."

Welcome to North Dakota, Mr. President.