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N.D. tribes differ in goals for Obama’s visit

Mike Nowatzki

Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Richard McCloud admits he had his fingers crossed when he heard President Barack Obama planned to visit an American Indian reservation in North Dakota.

The chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa said he would have loved to host the president at the tribe’s small reservation in north-central North Dakota, to show him the need for assistance with housing, infrastructure and economic development — and roads.

“Hell, I would have taken him down Jack Rabbit Road at 55 miles an hour, show him how rough the road is,” he said, laughing.

But only one reservation could host the president and first lady, and the White House chose the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation that straddles the North Dakota and South Dakota line.

The chairmen of North Dakota’s four other tribes, as well as tribal chairmen in South Dakota, have been invited to Cannon Ball for the president’s visit, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II said.

It’s unclear how much if any one-on-one time they will have with the president. But the chairmen said they plan to present position papers outlining their priorities, which reflect the different challenges — some the subject of unwanted publicity — between reservations.

McCloud said he hopes to convince Obama to add Turtle Mountain to the White House’s Promise Zones Initiative that partners with local communities and businesses to create jobs, boost economic security and access to affordable housing, expand educational opportunities and improve public safety.

The first five zones were announced in January and included the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Turtle Mountain is the smallest but most densely populated reservation in North Dakota, with 18,000 to 19,000 tribal members living in and around the 72-square-mile reservation. McCloud said the unemployment rates sits at about 70 percent and the poverty rate is about the same.

If designated as a Promise Zone, he said the tribe would use the increased federal aid to start its own asphalt plant so it could rebuild roads and create jobs.

“I’m trying to create economic development,” he said, noting the tribe is also doing its part, trying to close a deal with a manufacturer of housing and rail containers that could bring 75 to 125 jobs.

On the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota’s booming oil fields, the chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation said he hopes to stress to Obama the need for road funding, education and tribal self-determination.

Tex Hall, who attended the last visit by a sitting president to a reservation, when President Bill Clinton visited the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1999, said oil drilling started “like a darn gold rush” on Fort Berthold but was initially slowed by a lack of federal staff to approve drilling permits.

They’ve since caught up, he said, and as of March the reservation had nearly 1,200 active wells producing about 300,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day — so much that, if it were a state, Fort Berthold would rank seventh in oil production.

Still, Hall said the federal government can help by building the capacity for the tribe to develop its own hydraulic fracturing rules and other regulations.

“To me that’s part of self-determination: Let the tribes themselves develop their own regulations and their own rules and laws and support us so we can develop this economy without slowing it down because of bureaucratic red tape,” he said.

Increasing the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ budget also would help the tribe combat rising crime that’s accompanied the oil boom, he said.

Tribal Chairman Leander “Russ” McDonald said child protection and safety continues to be a priority on the Spirit Lake Reservation in northeastern North Dakota, where the stabbing deaths of two children in 2011 and subsequent incidents have turned a national spotlight on kids living in high-risk situations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs took over the tribe’s social service programs in 2012.

Robert Shepherd, tribal chairman of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate on the Lake Traverse Reservation in far southeastern North Dakota and northeastern South Dakota, could not be reached for comment.

McDonald said the tribe has supported legislation introduced by U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota aimed at protecting native children, and it’s among the issues he plans to broach to Obama.

Tribal leaders are accustomed to working with the federal government through the state’s congressional delegation, and the president’s visit is a unique chance to hand-deliver a position paper and hopefully speak directly to the commander-in-chief, McDonald said.

“The opportunity may never be there again,” he said.

Archambault said he plans to use the opportunity to talk to Obama about recognizing tribal sovereignty and strengthening the nation-to-nation relationship. He said the president is expected to hear from the tribe’s youths about the adversity they face, which he hopes will helps shape future policy.

Higher-than-normal rates of suicide and school dropouts are symptoms of the reservation’s estimated 40 percent poverty rate and 60 percent unemployment rate, Archambault said.

“We’ve got to do something to try to create meaningful jobs and to spark the economies across the nation in Indian Country,” he said.

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.”

Archambault said Obama has already done “a lot more” than any other president for Indian Country, and whether he unveils something or not, “we know that his work is appreciated.”

“We know that only good can come from this,” he said.

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