By Guest Contributor Megan Red-Shirt Shaw
Only four United States presidents have ever visited an Indian reservation during their terms: Calvin Coolidge in 1927, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, Bill Clinton in 1999 and now, Barack Obama, here in the year 2014. Last week ended a 15-year-long gap between visits by our country’s leader to Indian Country. As I watched footage of President Obama and First Lady Michelle sitting at a powwow hosted by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation, the thought shocked me: over the past 80 years, the president of our country has only come knocking on our doors four times.
Clinton’s visit ended a 63-year gap between presidential Rez visits. During that time, the Indian Reorganization Act was created; roughly 25,000 American Indians served in World War II; the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Youth Council came into existence; the American Indian Movement seized Alcatraz Island; Wounded Knee was reoccupied; the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was reestablished; and the United States v. Sioux Indian case was decided by the Supreme Court. Yet, in sixty-three years, within Indian Country – none of these happenings warranted a visit from the President of the United States.
Two of those four presidents, Coolidge and Clinton, chose the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota for their visits. I know Pine Ridge through my incredible mother, summers and ceremonies that have shaped my spiritual existence. Clinton knows Pine Ridge as the place he stopped by and promised social and economic change that never came. President Obama now knows Standing Rock as the place where he was treated with profound respect and honored with a red, white and blue star quilt. I cried as I watched, hoping of all the visits he makes this year that this served as a profound moment for America’s leadership.
Beyond the large political happenings and events that mark our Indigenous history up until this point, the fact is that there are Native American children being born in this country every single day of the year. These children are growing up on reservations, in urban Indian environments, in suburbs and homes across the country.
The truth is, that the entirety of Native America cannot be represented by a visit to Pine Ridge every eighty years. It also cannot be represented by Sioux country alone. I say this as a proud Lakota woman, knowing how much Pine Ridge and other places like it need national attention, but it’s time to pay respects to Indian nations across the country.
My question to every president over the course of those lost 80 years is — why did you forget to come and visit our children? The children of 1936 are the elders of 2014. The babies born during Clinton’s visit saw Obama’s arrival as youths. The preservers of our culture and the future of our societies are impacted by these visits. Why haven’t they seen or heard from you during that time?
President Obama, you were given the Lakota name “Wicasa Oyate Wookiye,” which means, “Man Who Helps the People.” You have the opportunity to set the standard for generations to come by making the presidential visit to Indian Country annual instead of “historic.”
You could visit Native American children in a new community every year, so this country’s leadership can see the challenges they face, the ceremonies they are learning, the languages they’re proud of and the families who are trying to keep them safe. Treat us as sovereign nations. Honor our leaders. Talk to our students. See Indian Country for what it has become today – across the Plains, across the southwest, in the Northeast, in all directions. In your speech at Standing Rock you quoted Chief Sitting Bull, “Let’s put our minds together to see what we can build for our children.” Our minds are ready. Come see what we’ve already started to build for our children. It’s time to make #PrezRezVisit a tradition, and not just a special occasion.