ST. PAUL -- Relations between American Indian tribes and the federal government have turned around since Barack Obama became president, tribal leaders said Thursday night after a two-day St. Paul conference.
"A breath of fresh air," Judge Theresa Pauley of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state said about the Obama administration's pledge to work closer with American Indians and fulfill federal promises.
Her comments followed two days of discussions among 350 tribal representatives from across the country, representing about half of the American tribes, and 100 Justice Department officials, mostly from Washington, D.C. The conference was closed to the public and the media.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder brought the St. Paul "tribal nations' listening session" to a close, promising that the federal government will do a better job of serving Indians.
Specifically, Holder pledged to work on the top four problems tribal leaders outlined: financial and other support of tribal justice programs, improving federal law enforcement's tribal involvement, curbing violence against women and working on the juvenile justice system.
"It is simply impossible to exaggerate the severity of this issue," Holder said. "Based on data reported by tribes to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we've seen violent crime rates in some parts of Indian Country that are two, four and sometimes over 10 times the national average."
Former Minnesota U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger said in an interview that even in the early months of Obama's tenure, he sees an improvement over the George W. Bush administration, for which he worked.
"This administration really deserves a lot of credit for making a heartfelt commitment to Indian Country," said Heffelfinger, who during his time in office led a U.S. attorneys' Indian issues advisory committee.
But Indian leaders said everyone at the conference has heard federal promises time and time again and they have been broken time and time again.
"Healthy skepticism," is how Zackeree Kelin, an Oklahoma tribal member who works for the Navajo tribe, described the feeling.
Kelin and others also said there was more optimism among tribal leaders than any time since the Clinton administration, which Holder was a top Justice Department official.
"They are tired of talking," Holder said.
Ted Quasula of the Nevada Indian Commission Quasula said: "It is so exciting" to meet with top federal officials. Those meetings continue next week with what is believed to be the first White House conference with all tribes invited.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.