Native American leaders from across the country met Thursday at the White House for the seventh annual Tribal Nations Conference, where much of the focus was on youth, education, and the startling number of suicides on Native American land.
More than 160 federally recognized tribes sent leaders to the conference, an all-day event that began with speeches from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett. It was also punctuated with traditional Native American songs, a traditional flag ceremony, and a speech by President Barack Obama.
The main focus of the conference was Obama’s Generation Indigenous, or Gen-I, program, which he launched in 2014 after a June trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation brought him to tears.
It was the first trip by a U.S. president to tribal land since Bill Clinton had done so in 1999. Before that, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt. At the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Nation on the border of North and South Dakota, Obama acknowledged that tribes hadn’t always been treated fairly, and he promised to do more. But it was meeting with six Native youth at a school in North Dakota that moved him most.
When he left the meeting, Obama said he was “shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry. And it was heartbreaking.”