CANNON BALL, N.D. — President Barack Obama told a crowd of Standing Rock Sioux members Friday his visit to North Dakota was just one part of his administration's long-standing commitment to turn the corner on improving federal and tribal relations after decades of shortcomings.
Obama's focus during his visit, the first ever to a North Dakota reservation by a sitting president, was on improving education and economic development. He addressed an estimated 1,800 people inside the Cannon Ball Community Pow Wow Arbor prior to the start of the tribe's annual powwow.
Obama's visit was the first by a sitting president to any reservation since 1999 and the third presidential visit overall in the nation's history.
After Obama's arrival in the arbor, dozens of dancers decked out in colorful tribal regalia greeted him with a series of short traditional dances meant to honor esteemed guests.
Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault praised Obama for his work to improve federal-tribal relations during his time in office. He said he was humbled by the visit, which he said is just one example of the sincere efforts being made by the Obama administration.
"In his remaining two years he will work ... hard to come up with even more solutions," Archambault said.
Before turning the podium over to Obama, Archambault and tribal leaders presented Obama with a star quilt and first lady Michelle Obama with a Standing Rock Sioux tribal flag. He said their gifts symbolize love and appreciation of great leaders.
Obama responded to their warm welcome with one of his own.
"Michelle and I are honored to be in this sacred and beautiful place. It's easy to see why it’s called God's country," Obama said. "We're a little early, but thank you for giving us a sneak peek of your celebration."
Obama quickly turned to the theme he was pressing during his visit: taking a strong step toward improving federal and tribal relations as well as the quality of life for tribal members.
"I know that throughout history, the United States often didn't give the nation-to-nation relationship the respect that it deserved," Obama said. "So I promised when I ran to be a president who'd change that — a president who honors our sacred trust, and who respects your sovereignty."
Obama said since visiting the Crow Nation in Montana during his 2008 campaign he's pushed consistently to improve conditions on the reservation. Among those were efforts to strengthen the sovereignty of tribal courts and sentencing of people who commit violent acts against tribal women.
One of the most important ways of strengthening communities on and off the reservation is by providing quality education to all students, he said.
"That means returning control of Indian education to tribal nations with additional resources and support so that you can direct your children's education and reform schools here in Indian Country," Obama said.
Prior to his speech, the president and first lady landed in a field on the edge of the community of less than 900 and traveled to Cannon Ball Grade School. The two spent an hour in a private meeting with several tribal children in one of the classrooms, where they heard stories of life on the reservation and the challenges their families face.
"I love these young people. I only spent an hour with them. They feel like my own. And you should be proud of them — because they've overcome a lot, but they're strong and they're still standing and they're moving forward," Obama said.
His administration released a series of proposals earlier Friday targeting improvements in both tribal education and economic development.
A new set of initiatives through the Bureau of Indian Affairs included a new rule to streamline the approval process for right of way on tribal land.
Also released was a blueprint for reform of the Bureau of Indian Education. Among its goals are to improve high-speed Internet to students at BIE schools, flexibility waivers for schools to enact improvements at their campuses and paid training for instructors.
Obama said efforts to overcome the wrongs of the past won't come overnight.
"My administration is determined to partner with tribes, and it's not something that just happens once in a while. It takes place every day, on just about every issue that touches your lives. And that's what real nation-to-nation partnerships look like," Obama said.
The Standing Rock Sioux Reservation spans approximately 2.3 million acres between North Dakota and South Dakota. Total population on the North Dakota portion of the reservation was 4,153 according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Unemployment and poverty rates have long plagued the reservation. According to Standing Rock officials, the unemployment rate on the reservation is approximately 60 percent, while the poverty rate is hovering around 40 percent.
The North Dakota unemployment rate in April was 2.6 percent; nationally, it was 6.3 percent.
The North Dakota portion of Standing Rock is located in Sioux County, one of few places in the state where a majority of voters have been supportive of Obama and his party's policy.
In the 2008 election, more than 83 percent of Sioux County voters cast their votes for Obama compared to 15.6 percent for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. In 2012, Sioux County voters went for Obama 78.7 percent to Republican Mitt Romney's 19.7 percent.
By contrast, the state of North Dakota went for McCain over Obama by a 53.2 percent to 44.6 percent margin in 2008. In 2012, the state went for Romney over Obama by a 58.3 percent to 38.7 percent margin.
The support for Obama prior to his arrival was evident with families in their driveways and off side streets to catch a glimpse of the president’s arrival and passage of his motorcade.
Alycia Yellow Eyes, 34, of Mandan, stood by the edge of her childhood home directly next to the field where Obama and his entourage landed.
Yellow Eyes, who gathered at the residence with more than a dozen members of her extended family, said she preferred her view to that of the speech at the powwow.
"They can have the powwow grounds. They landed in our front yard," Yellow Eyes said. "I never thought I'd see a president landing in my front yard."
As the president landed, a couple of young relatives of Yellow Eyes stood on the roof of an RV parked on their property holding a sign reading "Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Obama."
A few blocks from the elementary school, Cannon Ball resident Christopher Ell, 19, waited with family to catch a glimpse of the motorcade as it passed by. He called it a historic day for the community that he didn't want to miss.
"I don't think Cannon Ball's been noticed ever till today," Ell said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said Obama's visit placed a spotlight on the challenges of Indian Country. Heitkamp, who has pushed for several pieces of tribal-related legislation since her election in 2012, commended the administration for laying a strong foundation for Obama's successor to build on.
"It's going to take a while for all of this," Heitkamp said. "You can't take a problem like this and change it overnight. But you've got to start somewhere."