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WINDY BUT WARM WELCOME: Standing Rock Indian Reservation honored by Obama, first lady’s visit

FNS Photos by Kevin Cederstrom At top, President Barack Obama visits with young Native American dancers on Friday during the Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration in Cannon Ball.

CANNON BALL – In welcoming President Barack Obama to his reservation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II noted that Chief Sitting Bull, who lived here, once asked the government in Washington to send him an honest man.

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“If Sitting Bull we're sitting here today, he'd be honored,” he said.

He said no other president has come close to Obama in commitment to Indian Country.

“I hope this sets a precedent,” Archambault said.

Obama paid tribute to veterans and noted his work to improve relations and cooperation between the federal government and tribal nations.

He noted that the U.S. government did not always give Indian Country "respect it deserves."

Under his watch, he said, "I'm proud that the government to government relationship between Washington and tribal nations is stronger than ever."

Generations of American Indians gathered to take pictures and video as the president and first lady Michelle Obama landed in Marine 1 helicopter at 2:49 p.m. Friday in Cannon Ball.

Standing in her uncle’s driveway with about 20 relatives, Alycia Yellow Eyes, 34, of Mandan, shot video with her cell phone and waved at the procession of seven helicopters as they descended on a grassy field below a residential area of the community of about 900 people.

“I never thought I’d see a president landing in our front yard, you know?” she said.

Across the field, 19-year-olds Austin Kelly and Christopher Ell and others had prepared to watch Marine 1’s landing from the back of a pickup truck on the lawn of Kelly’s Bar.

“I don’t think Cannon Ball’s been noticed ever ‘til today,” Ell said.

The president and first lady, running about half an hour behind schedule, stepped off Marine 1 with U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and were quickly shuttled to Cannonball Elementary School for a roundtable with youths from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

They were expected to hear about the challenges facing the young people, what it’s like to grow up in Indian Country and their hopes for the future, according to the White House. The roundtable was closed to the press.

The Obamas arrived at Bismarck Airport in Air Force One at 2:13 p.m. Friday. The couple waved to North Dakota leaders as they descended the stairs, followed by Heitkamp.

The president and first lady were briefly greeted by North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and his first lady Betsy, former Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and other state leaders before making their way to a helicopter that transported them to Cannon Ball for the Flag Day Celebration Wacipi.

Obama is the first sitting president to visit Indian Country since President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 1999. Before that, the last sitting president to visit a reservation was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who stopped at a Cherokee reservation in 1936 during a trip through North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains.

Friday’s visit is Obama’s first to North Dakota as president. He made two campaign stops in North Dakota in 2008, speaking to crowds in Grand Forks and Fargo.  

The last president to visit North Dakota was George W. Bush, who visited Fargo in 2005 while promoting a Social Security reform proposal. Clinton came to the Grand Forks Air Force Base after the Red River flooded Grand Forks in 1997.

North Dakota as a whole is unfriendly political territory for Obama, who received 45 percent of the state’s vote in the 2008 election and just 39 percent in 2012.

Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature and hold the governor’s office and all statewide offices except that of Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, and even she has clashed with the Obama administration over the Keystone XL pipeline and proposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But Obama has enjoyed strong support in Indian Country, garnering 79 percent of the vote in 2012 in Sioux County, which consists of the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock reservation.

In an op-ed piece last week announcing his visit to a North Dakota reservation, Obama wrote that he would announce “new initiatives to expand opportunity in Indian country by growing tribal economies and improving Indian education.”

North Dakota boasted the nation’s lowest unemployment rate in April, at 2.6 percent, but Standing Rock is far from enjoying the same level of economic prosperity. The reservation’s jobless rate currently hovers at around 60 percent and the poverty rate is roughly 40 percent, tribal officials said this week.

Obama’s visit coincides with the Flag Day Celebration Wacipi, a powwow honoring tribal members who have served in the military. The annual three-day gathering during the week of Flag Day began in the 1920s and took on its official name in 1972 during the Vietnam War, according to the tribe’s historian, LaDonna Allard.

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