US President Obama and His American Indian family
Barack Black Eagle

"Ottawa should follow Obama on native involvement

 By Doug Cuthand, Times Colonist  January 25, 2009

The Americans believe that it ain't done until it's overdone, so the inauguration of President Barack Obama was an exercise in excess.

Amid all the hoopla was a dignified elderly couple from the Crow reservation in Montana -- Hartford and Mary Black Eagle, who adopted Obama as a son in May. While Obama was campaigning for the Democratic nomination, he visited their reservation and was warmly welcomed by the tribe. To honour the first national politician to visit the reservation, Obama was inducted as an honorary member of the Crow tribe.

The reservation is the largest in Montana and the second-largest in the United States. It is best known in Indian Country for the Crow Fair, which is held every summer and has a huge powwow and rodeo.

Obama's parents are both dead. His father died in a car accident in Kenya when Barack was 20 and his mother died of ovarian cancer when he was 34. It was because of this, plus their respect for the man, that the Black Eagle family decided to adopt him.

The tribe supported the adoption because the Black Eagle family was well regarded and Hartford is a spiritual healer. Also, the family has five generations living on the reservation. It is traditional for First Nations on both sides of the border to adopt individuals. Family is paramount and a person must belong to a "family," which extends into the community.

This was not a politically driven exercise or a publicity stunt. The ceremony was private and a purification ceremony was held. He was given the name "Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish" or "One Who Helps People Throughout the Land."

Obama told the assembled crowd, "I like my new name, Barack Black Eagle. That's a good name." He was touched by the ceremony and promised to "shake up" the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is the American equivalent of our Colonial Office, and to improve health and education programs for native Americans. He also promised to start honouring the government-to-government relationship with tribes.

Citing his experience growing up in Hawaii, Obama said he knew what it is like to be an outsider and to struggle financially. "I want you to know that I will never forget you," he stated. "And since now I'm a member of the family, you know I won't break my promises to my brothers and sisters."

Last week, the Congress of American Indians, the U.S. equivalent of the Assembly of First Nations, held a national meting in Washington, D.C. Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior designate, told the assembly: "First Americans will have their place at the table in the Obama administration and the Department of the Interior."

Obama has seven American Indians on his transition team, which is unprecedented. He also plans to name a senior adviser in his office and an assistant to the secretary of the interior from Indian Country.

The Congress of American Indians invited a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations to attend their meeting and to witness the inauguration.

We are living in a time of profound change. Native Americans are gaining access to public policy and the levers of power.

On one hand, they want social change such as improved living conditions, health services and education, as we do in Canada. On the other hand, some tribes have acquired wealth through natural resources, gaming and business development. They are no longer on the sidelines. They are players in the economy.

This is where Canada's First Nations have to grow. Our place in the economy is marginal at present. We need to create wealth and be participants in the Canadian economy.

Our federal and provincial governments have to get on board and start treating our leaders and our treaties with the respect they deserve.

We need to have strengthened lines of communication and consultation among our three governments. First Nations should be involved in areas of public policy where it affects us.

We need to see more of our people get involved in politics and seek public office.

Obama's election is a victory for all persons of colour. For years race relations have been a curse on American society. It is an issue that it must overcome if it's to be a truly egalitarian society.

Obama inherits a nation that is at war, indebted and mired in a deep recession. He has nowhere to go but up. One message coming out of the Obama election is that people are fed up with negative, partisan politics and prefer the politics of inclusion, less dogma and more co-operation.

I hope our politicians are getting the message.

Doug Cuthand writes on issues from a First Nations perspective for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.


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