December 06, 2012

President Obama Hosts 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference

Native American military veterans, including a member of the Native American Women Warriors, Marine Justin Fisher and a Navajo Code Talker from WWII (bottom right), take their seats at the closing session of the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, President Barack Obama hosted the 4th annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, a day-long event that brings together leaders and representatives from the country's 566 federally recognized tribes and members of the Obama administration. Calling it "the cornerstone of the Administration’s outreach and engagement with tribal governments," President Obama has held the conference each year since he took office as part of his original campaign pledge to improve nation-to-nation relations between Indian Country and the U.S. government. He is the first American President to hold annual meetings with Native American leaders.

This year's conference, held at the Department of the Interior's headquarters, began with opening remarks by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, (full remarks here), who highlighted several of the Interior Department's accomplishments during the past year, including payouts in the $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, a landmark case over mismanagement of federal lands held in trust for Native Americans.

First brought to court in 1996, the class-action lawsuit was led by plaintiff Elouise Cobell of Montana's Blackfeet Tribe, a trustee of the museum who passed away last year. When President Obama signed the settlement into law on Dec. 9, 2010, he called it a "small measure of justice" for the wrongdoings. (Read more about the Cobell settlement here.)

Remarks were also delivered by:

  • Secretary Arne Duncan, Department of Education (Full transcript here)
  • Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, Department of the Treasury (Read the press release here)
  • Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank, Department of Commerce (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Health and Human Services (Full transcript here)
  • Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Agriculture (Read the press release here)
Members of the administration during the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference. L-R: Tony West, Acting Associate Attorny General, Dept. of Justice; Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, Small Business Administration; Secretary Ray LaHood, Dept. of Transportation; and Secretary Hilda Solis, Dept. of Labor. (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

Following opening remarks, administration officials invited tribal leaders to attend breakout sessions that were closed to the public. The roundtables, led by various Obama administration officials, addressed various topics:

  • Strengthening Tribal Communities: Economic Development, Housing, Energy and Infrastructure, led by Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary, Department of Agriculture; and Marie Johns, Deputy Administrator, FEMA.
  • Protecting our Communities: Law Enforcement and Disaster Relief, led by James Cole, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice; and Craig Fugate, Administrator, FEMA.
  • Securing Our Future: Cultural Prottection, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, led by Hilary Tompkins, Solicitor, Department of the Interior; and Ignacia Moreno, Assistant Attorney General, Department of Justice.
  • Building Healthy Communities, Excellence in Education and Native American Youth, led by Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director, Indian Health Service; and Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education, White House Domestic Policy Council.
  • Strengthening and Advancing the Government-to-Government Relationship, led by Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes, Department of the Interior; and Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West, Department of Justice.

The closing session featured remarks by the leaders of each roundtable, as well as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis.

The Department of Justice's Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West noted that, for him, one of the main takeaways of the conference is that no two tribes are alike, and that these distinctions should be taken into consideration when shaping federal policy. The challenges facing landless tribes are vastly different than those confronting tribes whose federal recognition was terminated and later restored, he said.

Other concerns raised during the breakout sessions included:

  • The disproportionate effect of climate change on indigenous communities.
  • The rise of violence and drug trafficking on tribal land.
  • The effect of the fiscal cliff on Native American communities. 
  • Enforcing NAGRPA and protecting sacred tribal land and resources from mineral development.
  • Expanded education and suicide prevention for Native youth.
  • Internet and transportation infrastructure on reservations.

Read Indian Country Today's recap.   

Read MSNBC's What You Didn’t See at the White House Tribal Nations Summit.

President Barack Obama addresses tribal leaders at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference, Dec. 5. 2012 (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

After being welcomed onstage by Brian Cladoosby of the Swinomish Nation, President Obama delivered the conference's closing remarks. He began by paying tribute to tribal elder Sonny Black Eagle, who had adopted him into the Crow Nation during his 2008 campaign after he became the first Presidential candidate in history to visit the Crow reservation. Black Eagle passed away last week, just eight days shy of his 79th birthday.

“While we can’t celebrate that milestone with him today, we can celebrate his remarkable life and all that happened along the way," President Obama said. "Because Sonny’s story is not just one man’s journey to keep his culture alive, but one country’s journey to keep perfecting itself.”

Watch President Obama's full remarks on the White House website.

President Barack Obama greets members of the audience following his remarks at the 2012 White House Tribal Nations Conference (Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI)

In its executive summary for the Tribal Nations conference, the White House detailed its achievements for Indian Country during the President's first term, which included:

  • The HEARTH Act, which restores tribal authority to govern the leasing and management of their own lands.
  • The Tribal Law and Order Act, which improves coordination between federal law enforcement and tribal justice systems.
  • Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was permanently reauthorized as part of the Affordable Care Act
  • In addition to Cobell case, the settlement of the Keepseagle class-action lawsuit, which awarded $680 million to 4,200 Native American farmers and ranchers who were systematically denied loans by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981 to 1999.

What do you think of the issues addressed at this year’s Tribal Nations Conference? What are some of the issues facing your communities? Share your thoughts with us!

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June 05, 2012

Inspiration from Alaska

IMG092                    NMAI Cultural Interpreter Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) poses with a group of visitors from Alaska outside the museum. (Photo courtesy of Rachael Cassidy)

On Sunday I had the opportunity to give a tour to nine amazing students from Alaska, with a teacher and cameraman in tow. The Yupik kids are from a small island with a total population of 50 people. This was their third time off the island. After fundraising for three years, they finally had enough money to take their trip to Washington, D.C. The National Museum of the American Indian was at the top of their list of sites to see.

As a Cultural Interpreter, I have given tours to people from all walks of life. This includes kindergarteners and diplomats. I have given thousands of tours, but I will never forget my time with these amazing young people. Their bright, inquisitive eyes darted over exhibits and back to me, soaking up the experience like thirsty, happy sponges. Most young people are not interested in museums, so I have developed a bag of tricks to get their attention. These kids didn’t need any magic tricks; they brought the magic in the door with them.

We played a little game about identity: I showed the students a picture of a Cherokee woman from Oklahoma in her traditional clothing. “Who is more Cherokee,” I asked, “me or the woman in the picture?” The Yupik kids responded the same way most visitors do and pointed to the woman in the picture. “Really?” I asked and looked at the picture. “Do you recognize the woman in the picture?” They looked carefully and a wide-eyed few piped up, “That’s you!” I asked again, “Who is more Cherokee?” They were confused, and again, most of them said the woman in the picture. “If I change my clothes, does that change who I am?” We had a fun discussion about cultural identity. They decided that even if they aren’t wearing traditional clothing, they are still Yupik.

The teacher asked me to talk about leaving home, addressing language loss and lack of traditions. These are concerns for many Native people when we leave home. I shared my experiences as an urban Native in the D.C. area. I miss a lot of cultural events at home. However, it is an honor to teach people about my culture and my history. I have grown as an individual because of the time I have spent in Washington. I have a better understanding of my culture because I have left home. I compare my culture to others around the world. Now I understand why we tell our stories and cook our foods in certain ways. I share these stories and cultures with my family and friends when I return. My nieces and nephews love Alaskan string games! “You can do both. You can leave your community to teach others about Yupik peoples. When you return home, you will have new stories to share with your community.”

The students loved the idea that tradition changes and always has, as expressed through contemporary objects at the museum like the Yupik mask made from kitchen utensils and beaded tennis shoes. We talked about Native artists, Senators, and astronauts. We discussed the importance of elders and traditions. After I had shared objects and stories with them for nearly two hours, they were ready to share with me.

We went to the Yupik exhibit. The Yupik are known for telling stories through dance. Two teenage girls shared a beautiful dance that tells the story of the traditional sweat baths. We shared words in our languages. Then I showed them a dance a Yupik grandmother gave the museum about the drum. It was brilliant to see to see all nine of them making the motions for the large flat Yupik drum.

These students wanted to learn. They wanted to be at my museum. They wanted to hear my stories. This is why I came to work at NMAI—so I could share these stories with the next generation. Most aren’t interested, but these students didn’t waste a single moment of their time. Even the four-year-old asked questions! Their teacher was amazing. She has poured her heart into these young people, and it shows. The cameraman is making a film about their experiences leaving the island. I can’t wait to see it!

I believe these students can do anything. I believe they can be Senators, astronauts, artists, traditionalists, and filmmakers. Wado, (thank you) for helping me remember why I came to NMAI. I am truly blessed to have had you all as my teachers. You are the next generation. You are my inspiration.

~  Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), Cultural Interpreter, NMAI

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March 12, 2012

How Social Media Revealed a Navajo Family Heirloom


Jared King, who works in the Navajo Nation's D.C. headquarters, shares this story about his quest to track down a print copy of the beautiful photograph above, which features his grandmother on the Navajo Nation during the Depression.

In 1933 American photographer Laura Gilpin (1891-1979) took a photo of a young Navajo girl, age 12 or 13, near the Four Corners in the Navajo Nation. That photo was later published in Gilpin’s book, The Enduring Navaho (1968, University of Texas Press), among other photos taken on and near the Navajo Nation. The subject in the photo is Susan Tsosie, my grandmother. Susan is seated on the ground, holding a kid goat and wearing traditional Navajo clothing: a hand-woven shawl draped around her shoulders, silver coins and buttons adorning her blouse and a stunning piece of turquoise jewelry around her neck.

About a month ago, my cousin Susanna Rose posted the Gilpin photo of Susan on her Facebook page. A number of my cousins responded with their own cherished memories of our grandmother, who later married George King, my grandfather. They have both passed on, but their legacy remains.

It was through Facebook that I was reminded of the photographer Laura Gilpin. I Googled her name. The search led me to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where most of her photos are now housed. I contacted the museum and submitted a request for a copy of this photo.

I thought it was a long shot, but the museum responded immediately. They sent over a digital image of the photo I described. It was a match. Two days ago, a print copy of the original photo taken in 1933 arrived at my apartment in Adams Morgan in Washington, D.C. Laura Gilpin captured an incredible image of Susan Tsosie.

In a week, it will hang nicely framed in the Navajo Nation Washington Office for everyone to enjoy.

Jared King, Communications Director, Navajo Nation Washington Office

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This is a great story, social media has been useful in other spectacular discoveries. Like finding missing children or reuniting family. Thanks for the post, I liked it on facebook!

I can not believe that you are a grandchild of the woman captioned on the picture, that is so amazing!The picture of your grandma, holding the kid goat in her native attires is so lovely! Thanks for sharing with us that story!

Really informative article post.Really looking forward to read more. Really Great.

Grandmother looks so young and beautiful. Also see the Navajo clothing! Beautifully traditional. This is a very great memory.

That is a really lovely story, and the photograph is beautiful - someone must have taken great care of the original print to preserve it so well.
Isn't it amazing how modern technology can join together such a historic tradition to the current day..

Wow really cool. Just great to see young artist sharing there works with the community.

I can not believe that you are a grandchild of the lady captioned on the image, that is so amazing!The image of your grandmother, having the kid goat in her local outfits is so lovely! Thanks for discussing with us that story!

Hello grandson. My name is Kathleen Tsosie. Your grand mother was my aunt. My late father's name was Allen Tsosie. I am so proud of what you've done with your grandmother's picture. It great to know that you have her picture up at Washington D.C. at the Navajo Nation office. Love you and continue to do your best with Navajo Nation School board. Currently, a school board member at Cove, Arizona.

Look what social media do! It does not just inspire, promote or advertise but it also connects not just places but also time. This is an inspiring story.

January 26, 2012

2012 State of the Indian Address

2012 NCAI State of the Indian address

Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw), president of the National Congress of the American Indians (NCAI), and Jacqueline Johnson Pata (Raven/Sockeye Clan of the Tlingit Tribe), NCAI executive director, during the presentation of the 2012 State of the Indian address. Photo by Molly Stephey, NMAI.

Washington, DC—The 2012 State of the Indian address was delivered today by Jefferson Keel (Chickasaw), president of the National Congress of the American Indians (NCAI), before a live audience of tribal leaders, national American Indian organization leaders, and U.S. Congressmen. Approximately 300 people witnessed the address inside the Newseum’s Knight Studio, located in downtown Washington, D.C. This address is the National Congress of the American Indians' response to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.

“President Obama outlined a clear path for the economic future of America in the State of the Union. We support these efforts as Indian Country is integral to revitalizing the American economy. We call on the Administration and Congress to free our economies and create a more flexible government that honors the ability of tribal nations to determine our own future,” said President Keel. “Members of both parties in the House and Senate have shown that issues affecting tribes are nonpartisan. The president has shown outstanding support of tribes. The time to act is now; in our national address we will outline legislation and action the federal government can take, right now, to make Indian Country even stronger.”

In the State of the Union address, President Obama referenced American Indians by highlighting Native Americans' record of military service—the highest record of service per capita of any group of Americans, currently and throughout the 20th century. Prior to his address, President Keel was introduced by Lt. Col. T. Jay Hunting Horse (Kiowa–Choctaw), a U.S. Marine on assignment in the Pentagon. “Very few Americans know the story of the hundreds of thousands of tribal members who have served in the United States military, as far back as the Revolutionary War. As a war veteran myself, I want to thank Lt. Col. Hunting Horse and 24,000 active-duty American Indian and Alaskan Native service members serving today to protect the sovereignty of the United States and the tribal nations of North America,” acknowledged Keel.

Highlighted topics in this year’s address, with brief excerpts, include:

  • Strong Indian nations: “I am honored to speak to you all, but especially to address representatives of the more than 5 million Native people and the 566 tribal nations in Indian Country.”
  • The Native vote in this election year: “Indians don’t just vote ‘D’ for Democrat or ‘R’ for Republican. For us, it’s ‘I’ for Indian!”
  • Opportunities for Congressional action: “For all of the partisan challenges of the past year, the Congress has found common ground for Indian policy.”
  • Government flexibility: “We need the federal government to put decision-making power back in the hands of the people who live in Indian Country—the people who know best because these are our homelands, these are our people.”
  • A moment of opportunity: “This message comes directly from tribal leaders: ‘We need freedom at the local level to best use our limited resources. We know what’s best because we live in Indian Country.’”
  • A new era for the trust relationship: “Enforceable consultation means we must talk about another idea: tribal consent. There would be a public outcry if the federal government tried to impose policy on a state without its consent.”
  • Our America: “As the oldest governments in America, tribal nations understand what is required to overcome stark economic conditions. Perhaps more than any other time in our history, our nations must stand together, empowered to make profound and permanent improvements in the lives of our people. Our nations are committed to the success of the United States of America. Let us realize that future together so that our nations thrive today and forever.”

Representative Tom Cole (R-OK), an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation, provided the official Congressional response. “The first Americans in the country are the last Americans. This needs to change. We are symbolically on a long walk back to returning our sovereignty,” said Representative Cole.

Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), Vice Chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, added, “I believe the message today is to tear down barriers and remove obstacles for success [in Indian Country].”

The purpose of State of the Indian address—which usually takes place each year shortly after the State of the Union—is to highlight critical issues facing tribal nations while outlining Indian Country's vision for the year and beyond.

Jefferson E. Keel was re-elected President of the NCAI in November 2011; he previously served two terms as NCAI’s First Vice-President. He is also serving his fourth term as the Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma. President Keel describes himself as firmly committed to the service of Indian Country and to actively supporting the self-reliance of Indian people. His goals for the NCAI include establishing a clear path for tribal leaders, citizens, advocates, and political leaders to improve tribal communities, enhance Native culture, and protect tribal sovereignty.

For more information, and to view a rebroadcast of the 2012 State of the Indian address when it is posted, please visit the National Congress of American Indians website.

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

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I appreciate reading the profound intent presented herein.

very interesting article

Thank you for this article. That’s all I can say. You most definitely have made this blog into something special. You clearly know what you are doing, you’ve covered so many bases.Thanks!

nice article,
thanks for sharing.. :)

This years State of the Indian Address is great to emphasize the role of the American Indian in serving the US military from way back during Revolutionary war.

Very enlightening to hear that the President has shown outstanding support to the tribes to make Indian Country much stronger.

Thank you for the information.

Interesting article.

The purpose of State of the Indian address—which usually takes place each year shortly after the State of the Union—is to highlight critical issues facing tribal nations while outlining Indian Country's vision for the year and beyond.

September 15, 2011

Will current blood quantum membership requirements make American Indians extinct?

N01278 Blood quantum is a term used to define bloodlines relating to ancestry. For example, a person with one Indian grandparent and three non-Indian grandparents has one-quarter Indian blood. For American Indians, intermarriage between tribes, however, reduces specific tribal blood quantum.

The concept of documented blood quantum began in Europe and surfaced in the Virginia Colony in 1705. However, Native blood quantum was not widely applied in federal law until the 20th century. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act provided a means for federally recognized tribes to form constitutions and statutes to define their own membership criteria. As a result, the majority of federally recognized tribes began using set blood quantum requirements, lineal descendancy, or roll descendancy as criteria for tribal membership. Many non-federally recognized bands and tribes adopted blood quantum requirements to determine their tribal membership as well.

Tribes that use blood quantum criteria require tribal members be at least one-half to one-sixteenth blood of their tribe. A Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) is issued to tribal members as documentation of tribal membership. Tribes that use CDIB’s have the right to close membership or disenroll members because of lack of blood quantum. Tribes that use roll descendancy, established though treaties, may have tribal members on their rolls with no Indian blood at all—people who are tribal members, but who are not American Indian. Issues of roll descendancy, including closing membership and disenrolling tribal members, are currently being debated in the courts.

A colleague and I were discussing tribes that use blood quantum to determine their membership. She said, "Tribes that do this are setting themselves up for extinction. Eventually intermarriage will wipe fixed blood quantum out.” I totally agree with her: under the current blood quantum of my own tribal membership, my future grandchildren will not qualify to be members. As an American Indian and tribal member, this concerns me.

My colleague said her tribe recently opened up their membership for new members including new babies, people who moved out of state, etc. In order to become a new member each person seeking enrollment had to answer, historical, cultural, and family questions that pertained to the tribe's identity. For newborns, their parents had to answer these questions.

It was this tribe’s belief that if prospective members were connected to their community roots, they would know the answers to the tribe’s questions. Individuals who moved away and did not maintain any connection to their tribal community were not able to answer the questions and were refused membership, regardless of blood quantum. Perhaps this is one alternative that tribes will consider to replace blood quantum requirements.

During the NMAI Living Earth Festival this summer, I asked a Native Hawaiian woman how Native Hawaiians view blood quantum in their culture. She responded, "To the majority of Native Hawaiians, blood quantum is not an issue. We know our family bloodlines, and they are recognized by other Native Hawaiians. This is what makes us Native Hawaiian. I think blood quantum is an issue to Native Americans because of their relationship to the United States government. Native Hawaiians are not recognized by the United States the way federally recognized tribes are. Therefore, I think it is due to the government that Native Americans have to be concerned about blood quantum." To me there are many truths in my Hawaiian sister's feedback.

Do you think current tribal blood quantum requirements need to be amended or terminated? If so, or if there are other aspects of this topic that interest you, I hope you’ll be able to attend the symposium Quantum Leap: Does “Indian Blood” Still Matter tomorrow (September 16) at the museum in Washington, DC. If you can’t be here, please follow the discussion via live webcast. You can also submit questions via email to One of my colleagues or I will make every effort to pose your questions to the panelists. If you can't join us tomorrow, you're welcome to continue the conversation here via the comments.

For more information on tomorrow's program, including the panelists taking part, please see the symposium guide.

—Dennis Zotigh, NMAI cultural specialist

Above: Three Nanticoke schoolboys, 1911–14. The boy in the center is from the Street family. Indian River Hundred, Delaware. Photo by Frank G. Speck. N01278

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Isn't it interesting how the Spanish "pure blood laws" of 1484 influenced the Casta paintings in the New World which lead to the blood quantum system of the USA? Isn't it interesting how the Nazis used the blood quantum system for ridding Europe of Jews?

Before colonization, my tribe adopted people into our tribe without respect to origin. It is still part of our living culture to adopt relatives without respect to blood relations and origin. It is in our best interests to reject the blood quantum system concerning the history and continuous intent of such "pure blood laws". Allowing an external force to our communities to define our identities and define how our descendants can be treated is a cowardly act. As it is commonly said, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Tribes have all the information regarding the history of how "pure blood laws" have been adversely used against human beings. To continue to accept such blood quantum definitions for our identities brings shame upon us all for being so gullible that "pure blood laws" are intended for our benefit.