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Tribal Members Comment On Presidential Visit

Courtesy Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Following up on a promise made last Fall to tribal leaders from across the country, President Barack Obama is on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota today. And though a presidential visit is a big event in any part of the country, feelings on this Native American land that stretches across 2 states is being met with mixed feelings.

The village of Cannon Ball is located near the northern edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation – about an hour south of Bismarck. Only a few square blocks in size, its streets are paved. There’s a post office, one store, a gymnasium. Population about 900 – half of them Native American youth.

Houses aren’t extravagant, but moat are in good repair. There are front lawns and big back yards.

Like anywhere else, grandparents are sitting on their decks…enjoying the sun, parents are doing chores or coming home from shopping, kids are playing.

Credit Courtesy Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe logo.

Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman David Archambault says Cannon Ball is pretty much like any other reservation community.

“It’s a good community to visit if you wanna’ share what represents Indian Country,” Archambeaux observes. “And how you can visibly see some…you can visibly see some hardship, but then at the same time you can visibly see that life.”

“That life” is what Florestine Grant calls making the best of your situation.

“You know, we’re not wealthy or anything,” Grant explains. “Our community…we’re alive. You know, we do what we have to do. I say that because I just graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. And I’m an elder. But I was able to do that because I wanted to.” 

Florestine says not everyone on the reservation can fulfill their dreams as she did – through the assistance of a government-funded program. She says that would be one way President Obama could help the people in her community – with programs for those who want to help themselves.

Thirty miles south is Sitting Bull College – where Florestine earned her degree and where Laurel Vermillion is president. Like many other tribal members, Vermillion is excited the president is visiting Standing Rock; but she was hoping he’d stop by her school.

Credit Courtesy Sitting Bull College
Laurel Vermillion - president of Sitting Bull College.

“It would have been really nice because Sitting Bull College is really a beacon of hope on the reservation,” says Vermillion. “So, I would have told him that and I would have told him how important it is to support the tribal colleges, because they are here and we also are small. We have faculty and staff who are committed. Our students do well here because it’s home for them. And it also teaches their culture and their language. Both are very important to the Lakota / Dakota people. So, knowing who you are really helps to make you successful.”

On the South Dakota side of the reservation, feelings about the president’s visit are mixed. I meet with long-time tribal council member Jesse Taken Alive at the Prairie Dog Café in the village of McLaughlin. Taken Alive says he respects the fact that Obama is coming to the rez and considers the visit historic. But Taken Alive is boycotting the event. 

“It’s most likely gonna’ turn into picture opportunity, film opportunity,” Taken Alive anticipates. “Because thus far what we’ve been told, the majority of decisions on the visit, the logistics of it, everything…are being told and directed by the White House.”

As a result, says Taken Alive, real discussions about treaty issues, government appropriations and the still lingering historical trauma very of the Wounded Knee Massacre won’t be on the table.

Fellow council representative Avis Little Eagle is attending the Pow Wow planned around Obama’s visit: if she can get in. Over the past week, the tribe has been advised of a significant reduction in the number of those permitted to be in the crowd surrounding the president – a serious breach of cultural protocol among a people where community events are all inclusive.

Little Eagle does intend to submit paperwork to Obama’s staff noting concerns about the illegal taking of tribal lands along the Missouri River and the theft of the Black Hills. She also wants Obama to know that her people, as well as those on the Cheyenne River and Oglala Sioux Reservations, condemn the proposed Keystone XL pipeline expansion.

“We don’t want that pipeline running through our lands,” say Little Eagle. “And we have good reason. We want protection of the water. We want protection of our health. We want protection of our homelands”.

The bottom line, notes Avis Little Eagle, is that it’s always a thrill to know the president is coming to your home – just as long as he doesn’t plan to speak and run.