Obama Indian Country Debut Faces Tribal Keystone Protests

President Barack Obama, making his first presidential visit to Indian Country, promised Native Americans that he’s committed to improve conditions on reservations.

Obama addressed tribal leaders at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota today about his concern for Native American communities. He also was confronted by protests over the Keystone pipeline.

“My administration is determined to partner with tribes and it’s not something that just happens once in a while,” Obama said, listing improved education and job opportunities as his priorities.

The reservation was the home of Chief Sitting Bull, who defeated General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle at Little Bighorn in 1876. With a population of 8,217, it comprises all of Sioux County, North Dakota, and all of Corson County, South Dakota, plus slivers of northern Dewey County and Ziebach County in South Dakota. The median household income on the reservation is $21,625, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In a roundtable discussion with young people and remarks at a tribal flag day event, Obama highlighted his administration’s efforts to help Native Americans through education and economic-development initiatives.

Pipeline Opposition

In his public remarks, Obama made no mention of the Keystone XL pipeline. Tribal leaders had planned to appeal to Obama to reject the project, while activists with the Indigenous Environmental Network staged their own demonstration, organizers said in a statement.

“President Obama must reject this pipeline and protect our sacred land and water,” Bryan Brewer, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said in a statement. He called Keystone “a death warrant for our people” and said it violates Native American treaty rights.

TransCanada Corp.’s application to build the $5.4 billion, 1,661-mile (2,673-kilometer) pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries along the Gulf Coast is on hold at the State Department, awaiting the resolution of a legal dispute over how the route through Nebraska was approved.

The pipeline project, in its sixth year of review by the Obama administration, skirts the southwestern corner of North Dakota and goes into South Dakota on its proposed path. Keystone XL has become the focus of nationwide environmental protests since South Dakota issued its permit for the project in 2010.

Iraq Turmoil

Obama’s four-day trip away from Washington to North Dakota and California comes at a time when Iraq appears to be descending back into civil war and the government there is at risk of collapsing. In a statement before he left the White House, Obama said he will consider whether U.S. military actions -- not including use of ground troops -- will be taken. He emphasized that it’s up to Iraqi leaders to take the steps necessary for a political settlement.

Each year Obama has hosted the White House Tribal Nation’s Conference in Washington, which is intended to maintain a link between the federal government and tribes.

The president proposed an Indian affairs a budget of $2.6 billion for the year that begins Oct. 1, up $33.6 million from a year ago, to promote “stronger tribal economies, communities and families,” budget documents showed.

In May 2008, Obama campaigned on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. He was adopted by the Crow Nation and given a name that translates to “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land,” the New York Times reported at the time.

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