President Clinton, in an unprecedented meeting Friday at the White House, discussed tribal concerns with more than 300 American Indian leaders, ranging from protection of the Northwest salmon to the use of peyote in religious ceremonies.
Tribal leaders, some wearing traditional dress, lavishly praised Clinton for hosting the historic gathering under a tent on the South Lawn, saying that it marked an opportunity to begin to undo centuries of hostility between the federal government and the Indian peoples.
“It has taken the United States and the Indian nations 200 years to come to the point where we can begin to deal with one another as sovereign nations,” declared gaiashkibos, chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles Chippewa of Wisconsin. “A new day has begun.”
Clinton on Friday signed two executive memoranda establishing procedures for safeguarding Indian autonomy on tribal lands and protecting the use of eagle feathers for ceremonial purposes.
The late-afternoon session at the White House was conducted with all the pomp of a state visit and with virtually the entire Clinton Cabinet in attendance. Indian honor guards presented the U.S. flag and the eagle staff, the equivalent of the national colors of American Indians.
A military band played “Hail to the Chief” as Clinton entered the tent accompanied by senior tribal leaders. A Comanche processional flag song was performed by Wallace Coffey, chairman of the Comanche tribe.
The ceremony was then opened with the invocation of the Chippewa Cree tribe as a handful of eagle feathers was presented to the four points of the compass by tribal chairman John Sunchild Jr.
On Thursday, the South Lawn had been blessed by Indian leaders with no White House staff or security personnel present, according to Georgette Horse, spokeswoman for the National Congress of American Indians.
Clinton opened his remarks by noting that the American people seek a new sense of community and “oneness.”
“It is in that spirit and with great humility I say to the leaders of the first Americans, the American Indian and Alaska natives, welcome to the White House, welcome home,” Clinton told the tribal leaders.
Clinton said that he had invited representatives of all 547 federally recognized American Indian tribes to attend but that only 322 were able to come, many because their tribes did not have the money to send them.
“That only underscores the importance of our work,” Clinton said. “Let us dedicate ourselves to making certain that the next time we all meet together, conditions will be different and better, and all of our brothers and sisters will be able to join us.”
He endorsed legal measures to protect Indian religious practices and said he is committed to ensuring better relations between state and federal governments and Indian governing bodies. He also said that Washington will try harder to foster economic development in Indian communities.
“This, then, is our first principle: respecting your values, your religions, your identity and your sovereignty,” the President said.
He announced that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt next week would host the first National American Indian Listening Conference in Albuquerque, N.M., a two-day federally sponsored session to hear Indian concerns in more detail.
A number of the participants in Friday’s gathering came in native dress as a symbol of the Indian culture and a mark of the solemnity of the occasion.
Donald Sampson, chairman of the Umatilla tribal board of trustees, said he wore an eagle feather headdress and otter skins draped around his neck on the orders of his father, Chief Carl Sampson of the Walla Walla tribe of eastern Washington.
“He told me to wear native dress because it is part of our life, part of our religion,” the younger Sampson said.
He said that Walla Walla, Umatilla and Cayuse tribes of northeast Oregon and southwest Washington were chiefly concerned about the severe depletion of the salmon stocks of the Columbia River and coastal waters.
He also is troubled about deteriorating relationships between the tribes and state and federal governments, which he said he believes have mismanaged the natural resources of the area.
“There is hardly enough salmon for our ceremonies because the federal government has not protected the land and water,” Sampson said. “We’ve managed these resources for thousands of years and in less than 200 years they have gone almost extinct. It’s time they recognized our treaty rights” to manage the Northwest fishery.
He praised Clinton for what he called “an open attempt by the President to speak directly to tribal leaders. That hasn’t happened ever.”
Sampson added: “Hopefully, he’ll come up with commitments to tribal leaders and Alaskan native peoples to uphold treaty rights and honor our sovereignty.”