WASHINGTON - President Obama assured Native Americans on Thursday that they have a place in his White House and on his agenda, telling tribal leaders their marginalized community deserves more from its government.
"I get it. I'm on your side," Obama told the largest gathering of tribal leaders in U.S. history.
Obama devoted part of his own time Thursday and even more of his administration's attention toward renewing relations with Native Americans. He opened a conference that drew leaders from 386 tribal nations - the first meeting of its kind in 15 years - and he ordered every Cabinet agency to take more steps toward more cooperation.
The president returned to the event at the Interior Department late in the day for closing remarks, as scheduled, but he altered his message to address a deadly shooting rampage at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas. He said his administration would get answers to every question about the incident.
Obama's outreach to tribal leaders amounted to a campaign promise kept from a president who got significant support from Native Americans on his way to the White House.
It comes as Native Americans remain entrenched in a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, claiming the government has long swindled them out of land royalties.
Obama said he didn't blame tribal leaders for skepticism about another politician offering hopeful words. But he said he has no interest in going through the motions of just holding a summit with them.
The president seemed to connect best when he told his audience that he was like them: an "outsider" who grew up without a father, moved around a lot, and understood what it was like to struggle and be ignored.
"You will not be forgotten as long as I'm in this White House," Obama said to a sustained ovation.
Whether that promise results in action over the next few years will be the test. In a question-and-answer session, audience members pressed Obama for government help on a litany of matters, from more respect for sovereignty rights to environmental cleanup to concerns about offshore drilling.
One leader pleaded with Obama to find a way to make the federal commitment lasting, so that it would not be at the whim of White House elections. In the process, the speaker predicted Obama would win re-election, which apparently stuck with the president as he pledged to enforce the laws of the land.
"For the next eight years - the next four years at least, let me not jump the gun," Obama said, catching himself. He finished the thought more narrowly by saying that for "the next three years and one month" of his term that he would ensure a new relationship is in place.
During the conference, agency officials and tribal leaders discussed problems facing Native Americans, including economic development, education, health care, public safety and housing.
The president signed a memo calling on every cabinet agency to give him a detailed plan to improve the relationship between the government and tribal communities.
He has made good on pledges to hold the summit and to give Native Americans a prominent voice on his senior staff - and he reminded the audience of that.
"We respect you as a man of your word," responded Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
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