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American Indian Leader Encouraged By White House Meeting


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, journalist Paul Salopek started walking a while ago. He'll keep walking for seven years. He's following the development of mankind from Ethiopia all the way to the bottom of South America. And we'll talk about how students in cities across the U.S. are falling in his footsteps. That's in a few minutes.

But first, this is Native American Heritage Month. And last week, President Obama sat down once again with tribal leaders from across the country for another White House Tribal Nations Conference. This is the fifth time that the president has hosted this conference. It's a fulfillment of a campaign pledge and a sign, the president says, of his commitment to make sure tribal leaders have a stronger voice in Washington. It's also a chance for tribal leaders to discuss their concerns about jobs and health care and other things. Brian Cladoosby is here to tell us what they talked about. He was recently elected president of the National Congress of American Indians. It's the oldest and largest American Indian and Alaskan Native organization. Brian is chairman of the Swinomish tribal community in Washington state. Welcome, and congratulations.

BRIAN CLADOOSBY: Well, thank you very much. Yes, I was just recently elected president of the National Congress of American Indians at our last conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma. So it's a real honor to be here to not only represent Swinomish, but represent 566 nations across the great United States.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned it, let me ask you about that. How large is the Swinomish tribe?

CLADOOSBY: The Swinomish tribe - we have about 10,000 acres. Three thousand acres are waterfront and about - we have about 900 members. So in the scale of it, we're not a large tribe, but now we have our, basically, name on the map as being the president of NCAI.

HEADLEE: But as the president of an NCAI, you're basically presiding over a group of tribes that could not be more different and diverse. Everything from the gigantic Navajo Nation, straddling, I think, three to four states, all the way to some very, very small tribes of just a few hundred people, all of whom have different concerns, many of whom have different issues. How do you get any kind of concerted voice out of that group?

CLADOOSBY: Well, first of all, you have to understand that, you know, this is not our grandparents' generation. And what I mean by that is, our elders looked forward to this day when tribes would have this voice that we have right now in the United States of America. And when you boil it down to the issues, I mean, the tribes, they want to provide the best essential governmental services for their people, whether it be health care, whether it be housing, whether it be providing a safe environment for their kids to grow up in. And so what we want the government to do is get into the 21st century. And their relationship with us is the message that I have been preaching back in Washington, D.C.

HEADLEE: Well, let's talk about that then. I mentioned the Tribal Nations Conference, and President Obama spoke before that group of tribal leaders last week. Let's take a listen to a bit of what he said.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Standing up for justice and tribal sovereignty, increasing economic opportunity, expanding quality health care, protecting native homelands. This is the foundation we can build on. This is a progress that we can make together.

HEADLEE: You know, I know when the very first Tribal Nations Conference began there was a lot of enthusiasm and optimism among many tribal leaders. And I wonder now, after the fifth conference, has it turned out that the tribes actually have more of a voice in Washington? Or has it simply turned out that you've simply had an opportunity to talk to the president once a year?

CLADOOSBY: You got to understand the relationship that the Native Americans have with the federal government. And when I look back at the history - I've been on my council for 29 years now, and chairman for 17. And just to give you an example of the last three presidents, President Clinton gave one meeting to the tribes in eight years. President Bush gave zero meetings to the tribes in eight years. President Obama gave us five meetings in five years.

And in one of these meetings, he had his entire cabinet under one roof. And so when you look at it from that commitment, and you look at it from a historical commitment of presidents before him, no other president has done this. This is truly historic for this president to have these unprecedented meetings with tribes. And I've been to all five of these. So it's - and, you know, when you look at his track record - if you want to get into his legislative track record for tribes, that is very impressive.

HEADLEE: How do you translate that into actual influence? You know, many people in Washington are very much focused on polls. Many political operatives, including people who work with the president, are focused on exactly how may people you can bring to vote for them, right? And for Native Americans, who make up a small percentage of the United States, does that translate into real political sway?

CLADOOSBY: Well, if you - once again, if you look at his legislative track record, we have the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. That hadn't been reauthorized for 17 years. And every one of our treaties have a health care provision in it. The Violence Against Women Act, the Cobell case that was going on for almost two decades, the Keepseagle case involving, you know, our farmers - I mean, those are just an example of the things that this president was able to accomplish working with Indian country and with both Houses of Congress to get these things accomplished. And when you look at the Native vote, sure it's probably 1 to 2 percent, and it's even larger - I think Alaska is 15 to 20 percent. And if you talk to Senator Murkowski, she would tell you that she gives the tribes credit for her write-in candidate. The only second senator in the history of the United States to win a write-in election.

And she gives credit to the tribes in Alaska for that victory. In South Dakota, I think it's Tim Johnson, you know, he gave credit to the tribes for coming out, getting the vote out there. They're a small percentage of the vote, but when a politician only wins by 1 or 2 percent or less, you know, that vote really counts. Here in Washington, when Maria Cantwell beat Slade Gorton, it was by the narrowest of margins. And the tribes really galvanized against Slade Gorton to help Maria Cantwell achieve that victory. And also when, you know, Chris Gregoire was running for governor and she had her first election against Gino Rossi - and that was so, so, so close - you know, the tribes came out en masse to support her. And so even though we are a very, very small percentage of the population, when a politician sees somebody winning by one or two points and, you know, that's a difference between victory and loss, you know, they know how important the tribal vote is.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Brian Cladoosby. He's president of the National Congress of American Indians and a member of the Swinomish tribal community in Washington state. Well, let's talk about the tribal influence in other issues. I mean, I can't - I'm here in Washington. You guys were just here in Washington. And I understand that there was a meeting at the White House Tuesday afternoon with a small group of tribal leaders to discuss the name of the Washington, D.C. football team. You weren't a part of that meeting, but I'm wondering what - where you think this argument goes from here, whether or not they're going to change the name of the team or not.

CLADOOSBY: Well, if you look at the history of the United States, it is not a history that is taught to the masses. You know, people don't realize that Christopher Columbus, on his fourth journey back to Spain, was sent back in shackles because he was torturing and killing the natives. That's what he was sent back in shackles for. And when you have in 1755, with King George II passing a proclamation to allow the, you know, the English settlers to be paid to kill a man, woman or child and bring the Redskins in to get paid for, you know, that part of history is not taught. So it's a sad history that people don't know about. You know, Redskin, it is associated with genocide in the United States.

And so when - we want to educate this owner to let him know that that is part of the history. You know, this term is related to genocide. There was 50 million estimated natives when Christopher Columbus was lost and found his way to this part of the country. By 1890, it got down to 250,000 - a quarter million. And so it was almost total annihilation. And a big part of that history had to do with white people getting paid to bring Redskins in - a dead scalp - so they could get paid money for those.

HEADLEE: You know, Brian, out of curiosity I have to ask, what do you think is behind the recent clamor? Not only the Redskins' name, which quite frankly has been a fight for quite some time. People have been pushing for that name to be changed. And also we've seen the arguments over racially insensitive Halloween costumes, for example. People who dress up as Indians, which has been a fight for a very long time. But for whatever reason, it's suddenly come to the top of our cultural consciousness. This has become a topic of conversation among all kinds of different people, and it's made headlines all around the country. What's causing that right now?

CLADOOSBY: I think just an awareness that certain things just aren't acceptable in the 21st century like they were in the past. I mean, you know, you just don't go up - if you have any tribal friends, you just don't go up to them and say, hey, Redskin. How you doing? I mean, that's - nobody's ever done that to me. And I would never go up to a black person and use the N-word to his face. I mean, and there's derogatory terms for the Jews. You know, I would never go up to the owner of the Washington Redskins - who is Jewish - and use the K-word to him, and say, how you doing? I mean, it's just not acceptable. And people just don't understand the connection it has with a very, very bad part of our history where our people were basically annihilated and almost wiped out.

HEADLEE: Obviously, President Obama doesn't have control over whether or not the Washington, D.C. football changes their name. Although, he did make it clear that, if he were the owner, he would think about changing it himself. But what did the tribal leaders tell the president was the biggest concern among tribal leaders?

CLADOOSBY: Well, we let him know that this is, like you said, this issue - and it's interesting. The commissioner of the National Football League, Mr. Goodell?

HEADLEE: Yeah, Roger Goodell.

CLADOOSBY: It's an intriguing part of history. In 1968, when National Congress of American Indians first passed its resolution, his dad was walking through the halls of Congress when we passed this resolution in 1968 asking them to please change the name of the Redskins. And now it's gone full circle where he's the commissioner of the NFL and, you know, this is front and center on his plate.

HEADLEE: Wait, the National Congress of American Indians was asking them to change the name before I was born, is basically what you're saying?

CLADOOSBY: Yes. 1968 was when we passed our first resolution and brought that back to D.C. to say, look, this is not acceptable. So 45 years ago, when Mr. Goodell was a young man - a 10-year-old, 9-year-old - walking with his dad through the halls of Congress, we first brought this resolution to the attention of, you know, our elected officials back there.

HEADLEE: Brian Cladoosby is the president of the National Congress of American Indians. He's also an enrolled member of the Swinomish tribal community in Washington state. He was kind enough to join us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Brian, thank you so much.

CLADOOSBY: Thank you.

HEADLEE: And good luck with your presidency.

CLADOOSBY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.