CANNON BALL, N.D. — Hours after adjourning a tense meeting about the Iraq crisis, President Obama was on the ancestral lands of Chief Sitting Bull, taking part in a celebration to honor American Indians who have served in America’s foreign wars.
On a plain next to the Missouri River, dancers and drummers from the Sioux and other tribes, encircled by U.S. flags, created a pulsing swirl of color and noise as Obama and his wife, Michelle, nodded in time to the music.
In his first visit to an Indian reservation as president, Obama told the raucous crowd of 1,800 people that he had delivered on his promise as a presidential candidate in 2008 to improve relations between the government and the nation’s Indian tribes.
“There’s no denying that for some Americans, the deck’s been stacked against them, sometimes for generations, and that’s been true of many Native Americans,” the president said. “But if we’re working together, we can make things better.”
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Obama announced a series of modest education initiatives to improve schools for Indian children. Before the flag ceremony, the Obamas met with high-school students at a school on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to hear about the pressures they face growing up.
Tribal leaders praised Obama and presented him with a ceremonial blanket with an eight-point red, white and blue star.
“No other president comes close to the honesty and compassion he has shown for our tribal nations,” said David Archambault II, one of the leaders.
It was a rare respite for a president lurching from crisis to crisis. Obama tried out a few words in the Lakota language and held children during the farewell ceremony.
But he also encountered pressure on a familiar front as some of the leaders and some protesters urged him to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and other oil-sand pipelines, which they say would devastate their land, water, climate and treaty rights.
“Keystone is a death warrant for our people,” Bryan Brewer, a leader of the Oglala Sioux tribe, said in a statement. “President Obama must reject this pipeline and protect our sacred land and water.”
Obama is the fourth sitting president to visit an Indian reservation and the first to make such a trip since Bill Clinton in 1999. As a candidate in 2008, Obama courted the votes of Indians and visited the Crow Nation in Montana, where he was given an Indian name, Black Eagle.
But this long-planned visit was shadowed by the deepening crisis in Iraq. Some commentators questioned why Obama had gone ahead with the four-day trip, which includes a getaway with his wife in Palm Springs, Calif., at a time he is weighing whether to return U.S. warplanes to combat in Iraq.
Administration officials insisted the president could keep an eye on the crisis from the road. They said he was in touch with his national-security staff and could call foreign leaders or consult members of Congress from North Dakota or California.
Officials also said Obama did not want to stand up American Indian leaders.
“The president discussed making a trip to Indian country during the campaign,” said the White House deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest, “so this is making good on an important promise.”
Obama will attend a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Saturday morning before delivering the commencement address at the University of California, Irvine, marking the 50th anniversary of the dedication of the UC Irvine campus by President Lyndon Johnson.
Material from the McClatchy Washington Bureau is included in this report.