What Happens When the Great White Father is Black?

The President wasn't here very long last week, and he did just one thing in the state, in a place few North Dakotans have ever visited. It is not clear just why he came or what will come of it. I wasn't there, but I have friends who were there, and their reports are fascinating.

I know there are people who wish President Obama had visited the Bakken Oil fields to observe our staggering economic success and perhaps gain increased respect for carbon. I would have liked him to visit the badlands, perhaps Theodore Roosevelt's Elkhorn Ranch, or the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.

But there is a lovely simplicity and purity to what Mr. Obama did. He made the long journey to North Dakota just to spend a little time with American Indians, particularly Lakota Indian children. He didn't try to make the trip a Dakota smorgasbord--with five scattered stops, a ticker tape of hectic policy briefings, meet and greets, and an ad hoc tarmac news conference. Instead, he went to a pow wow. If he had a political agenda, it is difficult to discern just what it was. Some folks say he was fulfilling a campaign pledge, but it was certainly much more than that. One of the perks of being President of the United States is that you get to meet anyone you want—from the poet laureate of Ireland to the current NBA champions, from a Nobel-prize winning entomologist to Bono. The President and First Lady wanted to see American Indians--in their homeland not in the Oval Office, on their (Indian) terms, at a long-scheduled traditional event, outdoors, not at a "Presidential Summit" staged at some impossible distance from the heart of Indian Country.

There is something noble in that. I loved the front page photo in the Bismarck Tribune last Saturday, of President Obama (clearly moved, clearly enjoying himself, not stern as he sometimes appears) leaning into a group of Indian children, telling them their lives can be better, that they can achieve great things, that they should pursue their dreams and he will help if he possibly can. I spent much of Saturday trying to imagine the impact of that. It is possible that that moment could make a difference—could make all the difference—in one or more of those young lives. When someone of great consequence looks you in the eye, singles you out from the 316, 999, 900 other Americans, and says, "Yes, you can make a difference, you can improve your life and the life of your friends, we are counting on you, we believe in you," that may just be the leaven that helps transform a community.

Think about it. For most of American history, Presidents have told Indians to jettison their values, their economic systems, their social structure, their culture, their lifeways, and "get on board" with the Anglo-American dream. When Jefferson addressed a delegation of Choctaw leaders, at the White House, on December 17, 1803, he said, "A little land cultivated, and a little labor, will procure more provisions than the most successful hunt; and a woman will clothe more by spinning and weaving, than a man by hunting. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure." When he met our own Sheheke of the Mandan nation on December 30, 1806, Jefferson advised the leader he called "The Wolf" to convince his people to give up warfare and live in peace and harmony as white folks do. How he said this without smirking I don't know. "Remember, then, my advice, my Children," he concluded, "and carry it home to your people."

President Obama is not an assimilationist. He does not subscribe to the historically dominant U.S. Government policy of "kill the Indian and save the man." What he brought to the windy plains of North Dakota last week was simple but profound: respect, recognition, validation.

It would be a great thing for any President to have come to Cannonball to meet Indians on their home court. But it clearly is more meaningful in that this President is an African-American, a man of great achievement and success who comes from a historically-oppressed minority, addressing representatives of another historically-oppressed minority. Obama's message of "possibility" means something more when you consider that this is America's first black President, that fifty years ago we had to send in federal troops to make it possible for African-American children to attend the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas, or to enroll at "Ole Miss."

When friends of mine attended the University of Colorado Law School in the early 1990s, a young Oglala Lakota woman named Delores was in the first year class. We all spent a good deal of time together. Even though the University had an enrollment of more than 20,000 students, and an Indian Studies Program, Delores had a hard time finding anyone who could understand her world or appreciate her homesickness, especially at the law school. She said she knew the Pine Ridge Reservation was beset with problems—that in some ways it was a disaster—but it was her home, it was where her friends and family lived, it was a miniature world where she felt "secure." One day in the spring semester she came to us and said she was quitting law school immediately and moving back to the rez. We tried to convince her to stay at least to the end of the year. "No, you don't understand," she said, "there are so few brown people here. I miss being with brown people." Delores was gone by the weekend and we never saw her again.

Things are better now, but far from perfect. Young Indians still often feel isolated and alone at UND, NDSU, and other universities. Retention is a significant issue, in spite of some excellent pro-active university programs. Things won't get much better until we have more Native American professors, nurses, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, athletes, board of higher education members, government employees, novelists, accountants, and perhaps especially K-12 off-reservation teachers, to prepare the way for a broad American Indian renaissance. Just after the Revolution, John Adams said, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. . . in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

It takes time. It may take generations.

I like to think that one of those young people who met the President of the United States last week—in part because she met the President--will grow up to change the world, to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry, to write the great American novel, to file an important patent, to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to be the president of a great university, or make one of our tribal colleges a world class institution. Or just to make life better and more culturally rich for her fellow Lakota.

In the wake of all the post-Fighting Sioux aftershocks and incidents, some of them very recent, President Obama could not have come to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation at a more opportune time.

I'm so glad he came to this one place for this simple purpose, and without other distractions.

Respect. Recognition. Validation.