The president of the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska was one of only 12 tribal leaders invited for a personal meeting with President Barack Obama.
Edward Thomas of Juneau, representing 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, joined 11 other leaders from the Bureau of Indian Affairs gathered at the White House Wednesday afternoon for a more personal pre-summit meeting with the president. Thomas said although the meeting was short, lasting only 30 minutes, it was a good opportunity to get some insight on the president's stance on issues Natives are facing. He said Obama was also trying to establish a routine meeting with tribal representatives from across the country.
This personal meeting was a precursor to the much larger White House Tribal Nations Conference that will take place today.
He described the meeting as a chance to communicate on several issues. He said the president knows tribal leaders and is aware of many of their focuses, and has taken action when he could. He cited the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and Tribal Law and Order Act.
"He was trying to reassure us that he understands and supports us. He did speak to us on how he knows these issues," Thomas said.
He said it was good to touch base with the president and see how he's doing on his promises on Indian affairs. He said Obama also talked about things he hopes to do that have yet to come to fruition.
"He let us know he's a little behind on some of the things he wanted to do, like putting land into trusts," Thomas said. "Everybody knows he's under difficult challenges so all of this is a matter of building and keeping relationships."
Thomas said there are many issues he wants to see brought out during his White House visit. One of the largest is the federal government's role in providing a safety net for tribal people in rural areas in Alaska. Thomas said these economies are weak and face high costs.
"In Alaska, the biggest challenge is weak economies in our areas, trying to make sure we don't get more cuts than we can afford," he said.
Another large topic of concern is subsistence issues. Thomas said while he did not have time to bring this up with the president, he did get to discuss it with Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.
He will also be discussing rural health care and the possibility of modifying laws to put more Native properties and sacred sites into trusts. While he was able to bring up some of these topics with Obama, others will have to wait for today's conference.
"I think the one disappointment is not having enough time, but the positive is he wants to reassure us he understands the challenges we face and be supportive, so in that regard we can call it a success," he said.
Besides Obama and Salazar, Thomas said he also had the chance to give his thoughts on some of these issues with various other departments, including the U.S. Attorney General, Indian Health Service and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.