Monke: Obama visit nice, short of what was needed
President Barack Obama’s visit to North Dakota and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Friday may have been historic, but it was also everything we imagined it would be. It was short, sweet and about as basic as it could have been.
When Obama speaks, he tends to go one of two ways. Either he’s bold, authoritative and makes memorable statements, or he plays it safe and speaks to his political base. He went the latter route in his visit to the reservation, which wasn’t surprising. Obama didn’t take much of a risk coming to Standing Rock. Of the four North Dakota counties Obama won in 2012, none voted for the president at a higher clip than Sioux County, where he received 79 percent of the vote. The crowds couldn’t have been friendlier anywhere else in the state.
The president and First Lady Michelle Obama spent about 3½ hours in North Dakota — much of it in the small reservation town of Cannon Ball — where the best things they did and said likely happened away from the spotlight.
They visited Cannon Ball Elementary School, where media wasn’t invited but probably should have been after seeing the fun the president later had with Native American children at the powwow, producing some of the most memorable moments of their visit as he interacted with children in traditional Native American clothing and regalia. Obama seemed genuinely impressed by the powwow and their dancing — cameras caught him nodding his head and enjoying the music a couple times — and he was certainly willing to get down to their level, something that has always been one of the president’s strong suits.
Obama said some very kind words about a race of people — descendants of the first people of our state and nation — who are generally forgotten about in the fight for minority rights and chose to focus on the children.
“I know they’ll be leaders, not just in Indian Country, but across America,” Obama said.
As always, he looked great and spoke well. The problem was he didn’t really say anything.
He invoked Sitting Bull, as expected, but missed opportunities to speak about the real challenges those in Indian Country face. His speech was bland and used several “fill-in-the-blank” lines, where he could have just as easily been talking about any other community where people have been oppressed, neglected or forgotten. There was little mention of the specific hardships Native Americans continue to endure in North Dakota and across the country, including home heating problems during long and cold North Dakota winters.
“There’s no denying that for some Americans the deck has been stacked against them, sometimes for generations,” Obama said, “and that’s been the case for many Native Americans.” Typical political rhetoric followed shortly after that statement, one of the boldest he made during the visit.
Some wondered if Obama would make a statement about the Washington Redskins nickname controversy (or a nickname controversy much closer to home, for that matter) or work in some words about North Dakota’s economy and energy boom. The first seemed possible, the other was more of a pipe dream. Neither happened.
It would have been nice to see Obama, in what has been his only visit to the state as president, to touch on some of North Dakota’s other bright spots, such as our economy that is far outpacing the rest of the nation — even if the means by which that is happening isn’t appealing to his political leanings. Instead, his only reference to energy was fleeting and part of a statement about growing the tribal economy. There was no mention of how another group of Native Americans in North Dakota, the Three Affiliated Tribes, are seeing both the benefits and drawbacks of western North Dakota’s oil boom through the use of hydraulic fracturing.
Standing Rock Tribe Chairman Dave Archambault called Obama’s visit, “a historic step in our sovereign relationship, a government-to-government visit,” and he is absolutely correct. Archambault’s tribe reaped great benefits from the president’s visit, especially from a public relations standpoint. You could see the genuine excitement on the faces of people at the powwow, particularly the children. They knew this opportunity would be fleeting and soaked in every second.
“I will be back,” Obama said early in his speech.
And if he wants to come back, this state welcome him with as open arms as it did Friday. But we also hope he has more to say and is willing to spend more time here than he did this time around.
Monke is the managing editor of The Dickinson Press. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him at monkebusiness and read his past features and columns at monke.areavoices.com.