President Obama Tackles Native Education, Poverty at Tribal Nations Conference

By Morris, Catherine | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, December 3, 2015 | Go to article overview

President Obama Tackles Native Education, Poverty at Tribal Nations Conference


Morris, Catherine, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


At the 7th Annual White House Tribal Nations Conference held last month in Washington, D.C., President Barack Obama changed the script. Instead of standing behind a podium to address the assembled leaders of the nation's 567 federally recognized tribes, as he has done in years past, he spent most of his time on stage seated and in conversation with five high school- and college-age Native American youth.

Throughout his administration, Obama has shown a degree of interest in tribal communities that sets him apart from the presidents that precede him. Most recently, he traveled to native lands in Alaska, and visited Standing Rock Sioux Reservation with first lady Michelle Obama in June 2014.

Prior to Obama, the last sitting president to visit tribal lands was Bill Clinton. Before him, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last president to take an official visit to Native lands.

The Tribal Nations Conference is the result of what the White House characterizes as a goal of strengthening the "nation-to-nation relationship" between sovereign tribes and the president.

Under the Obama administration, the Tribal Nations Conference has brought the leaders of the federally recognized tribes to Washington, D.C., each year for the past seven years.

"[Obama's interest in tribal communities] has been more than lip service. There have been actual things put into place through his administration," Glen Gobin, vice chairman of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington state, told Diverse.

In a number of the policies he has promoted, and during his official visits to Indian country such as the one to Standing Rock, Obama has consistently expressed a desire to improve the educational opportunities available to Native American and Alaska Native youth. His message was no different at the Tribal Nations Conference.

"When we talk about the future of Indian country, we're really talking about the future of young people," he told the crowd of tribal leaders, Native American youth and senior administration officials.

Obama said "the key to a middle-class life" in the modern world is a good education. "There was a time where, as long as you were willing to work hard, you could support a family without a college education, some sort of advanced schooling beyond high school. It is very hard to do now. ... It doesn't necessarily have to be a four-year ... college, but you need some advanced training," he said.

What the federal government needs to do for Native youth, Obama said, is a better job of making them aware of what's "already there" in terms of resources to pay for college. No student should be prevented from pursuing a postsecondary degree due to financial constraints, Obama said, when Pell Grants, scholarships and federal loans are available.

Tribal colleges were another resource he cited, calling them an "important bridge" for students who want to stay close to their community while working toward a degree. …

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