Native American Leaders Convene In Washington, D.C.

Thursday, over 500 tribal leaders gathered in the nation's capital for a day-long Tribal Nations Conference. The meeting focused on issues ranging from employment to health care and housing. Rob Capriccioso, a reporter with Indian Country Today, explains the significance of the gathering.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

Yesterday, over 500 Native American tribal leaders gathered for a day-long Tribal Nations Conference. It's believed to be the largest gathering of tribal leaders ever here in North America. The meeting covered issues ranging from jobs and health care to housing.

Joining us now to talk about all this is Rob Capriccioso. He's a reporter with Indian Country Today, and he was covering the meeting.

Welcome. Welcome back, I should say.

ROB CAPRICCIOSO: Hi, Michel. Great to be here.

MARTIN: How did the conference come about?

CAPRICCIOSO: Well, Tribal Nations have been pushing to have a meeting with President Obama and all previous presidents for many, many years, so that was on his agenda. They made that clear during his campaign, that they wanted that to happen. He made that promise during his campaign, and he came through, to the excitement of many tribal leaders.

MARTIN: And President Obama acknowledged that the government - this government has had a history of making promises to Native Americans and then failing to fulfill its word. I just play a short clip of where he talks about that.

BARACK OBAMA: You may be skeptical that this time won't be any different. You have every right to be, and nobody would have blamed you if you didn't come today. But you did, and I know what an extraordinary leap of faith that is on your part.

MARTIN: Were there some people who thought about not coming and who didn't come because they felt it would just be the same old, same old?

CAPRICCIOSO: Well, some people couldn't come due to the circumstances. It costs a lot of money to get to Washington if you're a tribal leader from a very poor reservation. You have very little money to deal with education, health issues. You can't come here to deal with the federal policy issues. So, you know, some couldn't come for that reason. Other state-recognized tribal leaders weren't actually invited to the - this event. It was a federally recognized tribal leader conference, so some of them were very disappointed that they couldn't be here.

So I think it was a great mix, though, of people who were able to come over. Four hundred tribal leaders were in attendance. So, you know, you got a lot of perspectives throughout the day from very many of those people who - and they kind of represented many of the viewpoints from those other tribes that could not be in attendance.

MARTIN: Was there any overriding issue discussed, and were there any concrete decisions made?

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah. Well, I think the tribal leaders decided early on they wanted to express some key points on tribal sovereignty, how important it is to be recognized as sovereign nations and have a nation-to-nation relationship. And they also expressed their goals on self-determination and having the president support that. So those were kind of general issues. But then the president took it a step further by signing an executive order in front of the attendees, which asked all of his federal agency heads to consult with tribes and...

MARTIN: To have a plan for consulting with the tribes. To have some sort of mechanism for doing so. Why is that important?

CAPRICCIOSO: Well, it's important because the agencies don't always take it upon themselves to find out how they can be working with tribes in ways to get them financial assistance, in ways to help them develop certain programs. So this, by doing so, they have to do it with the president's directive. And what was significant about it, too, is he put a 90-day deadline on the agency heads to get back to him and report on how they're going to conduct that plan for consultation.

MARTIN: And finally, Rob, before we let you go, what was the atmosphere at the conference? Was it celebratory? Obviously, the tribal leaders were dealing with the same terrible situation at Fort Hood that we've all been talking about throughout the day. And I should mention that Native Americans have a very long record of service in the U.S. military, so this clearly had to have hit close to home for many people there. Many people would've known people who've served at Fort Hood, and so I'm sure that it cast some a pall over the day. But what was the overall atmosphere...

CAPRICCIOSO: Well it was...

MARTIN: ...apart from that? If you can say it.

CAPRICCIOSO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Apart from that.

CAPRICCIOSO: It was clearly a historic day for many tribal leaders. This had - an event of this magnitude hadn't happened before. So that Obama had focused on that, had talked early in the morning for several minutes and then took questions and answers from tribal leaders, that just was amazing to many in attendance.

So then later in the day, after the tragedy happened and he came back and gave his statement on that, of course, there was a somber mood. And what I wanted to add, too, was that they were a little sad that it took attention away from such important issues of the day, and they wanted the tribal issues to really get the national spotlight. And...

MARTIN: Well, we will give them that, if we can. This will not be the last conversation we'll have about that. So, thanks, Rob.

Rob Capriccioso is a reporter with Indian Country Today. He covered yesterday's Tribal Nations Conference. He was here with me in Washington.

Thank you, Rob.

CAPRICCIOSO: Thank you.

MARTIN: And, as you know, Lee Hill and I usually bring you Back Talk on Fridays. We lift the curtain on the TELL ME MORE blogosphere. Well, we haven't forgotten about you. With yesterday's breaking news from Fort Hood, we needed to do some reshuffling. Lee and I will be back to comb through your listener feedback on Monday.

Just ahead, the Barbershop guys give their take on the news of the week. We'll talk about the elections. We'll talk about the events at Fort Hood and whatever else is on their minds. That conversation is next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm Michel Martin.

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