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Obama to Indians: ‘I’m on Your Side’

WASHINGTON - Telling American Indian leaders "I'm on your side," President Barack Obama issued an order Thursday instructing federal agencies to do a much better job of consulting with tribes on numerous policies affecting Indian Country.

The order, signed in front of a cheering throng of tribal leaders, was the highlight of a one-day summit that Obama had pledged to hold during his presidential campaign last year.

The federal government is obligated under long-standing treaties to provide basic services to tribes, but Indians say the government rarely consults them about the way those services should be delivered. This order directs every Cabinet agency to draw up a detailed plan to improve tribal consultation.

"After all, there are challenges we can only solve by working together, and we face a serious set of issues right now," he said.

Representatives of 386 federally recognized tribes paid their way to come to the Interior Department for the summit, which featured discussion panels with Cabinet secretaries, federal lawmakers and the heads of agencies that deal directly with Indian issues.

The mood was generally upbeat, and the summit program included Indian ceremony and tradition. A few Indians wore headdresses, but most wore business suits. The president playfully engaged the crowd during a question-and-answer session, a sign of the kinship Indians feel with Obama despite the deep resentment many have toward the federal government.

Thorny issues of tribal lands and trust responsibilities, which are the subjects of lawsuits brought by tribes against the government, were discussed, as was the need for more money for health care, education and law enforcement. But few expect the gathering to solve problems immediately that have festered for decades.

Talking about the poor treatment Indians have received, the president said he could relate from his own personal experiences as the son of a teenage mother and a father who abandoned his family.

"I'm on your side. I understand what it means to be an outsider. I know what it means to feel ignored and forgotten, and what it means to struggle. So you will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House," he said to a standing ovation.

Indians say they finally have an ally in the White House. Obama campaigned on their reservations, beefed up aid to their tribes, appointed several Indians to key administration positions and delivered on the summit.

"We respect you as a man of your word," said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, who introduced the president. "You've restored hope to the Indian communities, and we want to thank you for restoring that, not only just by your words, but by your actions."

One of those actions is the order Obama signed Thursday.

Though it does not guarantee more money or favorable outcomes, the order promises a spirit of cooperation from Washington that Indian leaders said has been missing for years. President Bill Clinton issued a similar order about a decade ago, but Indian leaders said little was done to enforce it.

They are much more optimistic about Obama.

"It's truly a beginning," said Theresa Two Bulls, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, one of the most impoverished in the nation. "I feel in my heart, there's going to be many more meetings like this."

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