For the moment, however, his three-day visit has been dominated by a dispute over the name of the highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, which has recently been renamed Denali. There has also been a lot of talk about the rights of indigenous people in the USA.
Before Obama’s visit to Alaska, his government decided that the highest peak in North America would be renamed Denali, as it is called by the state’s indigenous people.
Until now, the 6,194 meter high Denali was known as Mount McKinley — that was the name it was given by gold seekers at the end of the 19th century in honor of U.S. President William McKinley. The name was officially adopted in 1917 and can be found on any atlas or map. The change was made on the basis of a decree of Sally Jewell, U.S. secretary of the interior. It immediately aroused indignation among congressmen and senators from Ohio, where McKinley was born.
This was another of Obama’s willful decisions, made without even consulting Congress or obtaining its approval, said Sen. Rob Portman.* He and other politicians from Ohio reminded everyone with horror that President McKinley was assassinated at the beginning of his second term and was a veteran of the Civil War, in which he fought on the right side (for the abolition of slavery). So, Jewell’s decree is knocking this hero — who gave his life in the service of his country — off his pedestal.
John Boehner, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, was “deeply disappointed.” Carl Rove, former adviser to George W. Bush, called for Obama to graciously honor McKinley in another way, after throwing him from the highest peak of America.
Obama has so far remained silent on the controversy because, from his point of view, the backlash is unfortunate. He flew to Alaska on Monday, mainly to promote the fight against global warming, which threatens Alaskan glaciers. He will appear on NBC, in an outdoor adventure show about Alaska, to talk about risks to Earth and in particular Alaska.
However, the Denali/McKinley dispute has dominated the three-day presidential visit. The senators and congressmen from Alaska, who have demanded the name change for several decades, greatly welcomed it.
Obama’s Symbolic Gestures
Obama has previously engaged in various symbolic disagreements on the side of U.S. indigenous people. He appealed to the owner of the Washington Redskins, an American football team, to change the name that many Native Americans find offensive.
When some Republicans call for the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants, Obama sometimes reminds them that all white Americans are illegal immigrants in a way, given that their ancestors came here and took the country away from the indigenous people. The only people who can legitimately be pissed off about illegal immigrants are Native Americans, joked the president a few months ago.
Native Americans admit that Obama is probably their most sympathetic president in U.S. history, but they are also disappointed to some extent. Obama visited one of the reservations only last year, five years after taking office.
But his visit to Standing Rock, the autonomous Sioux territory on the border of North and South Dakota, was no more than “historic.” The only U.S. presidents to have visited an Indian reservation were Bill Clinton (in 1999) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (over 70 years ago). The Obamas visited the local schools in Standing Rock and listened to student stories about their parents’ alcoholism, poverty, sense of hopelessness and suicides, which are a plague even among the youngest people in the reservations.
"No child should have to go through something like that, said the president. These children are like our daughters, Malia and Sasha — just as smart, just as beautiful. But, unfortunately they don’t have the same life opportunities as they have. And we cannot agree with that because it should not be like that in America … "**
Then, Obama invited 20 Native American children to Washington. In the two days they spent in the White House, they ate lunch at a pizza place with the presidential family, watched an NBA basketball game …
When it comes to the concrete, systematic changes, rather than the symbolic gestures, the federal government is increasing the number of scholarships for young Native Americans and subsidies for schools on reservations, which are among the weakest in the USA (their students have the worst test scores). Obama announced this program in December of last year. As Jewell, who is responsible for the reservations, has admitted, $1 billion is necessary for the renovation of the schools; some are practically falling apart.
Will Native Americans Get Back on Their Feet?
Subsidies won’t solve all of the problems in Native American communities because one of the most serious problems is their dependence on government assistance. In some reservations, people are only waiting for their state pensions so they can spend them on alcohol and so on, month after month. In the worst reservations, unemployment reaches 50 percent — nearly everyone there spends their grants and pensions on alcohol.
This is why the Obama administration is taking measures to ensure Native Americans can get back on their feet. For instance, the Bureau of Indian Affairs grants the reservations, in record time, licenses to operate casinos, which have become the main source of income for “wealthy” tribes. During the presidency of George W. Bush, these licenses were nearly nonexistent; now, almost every tribe gets them.
Last year, the Obama administration announced that Native Americans in all U.S. reservations may, if they so wish, grow and sell marijuana (some states have legalized it, although technically, according to federal law, it is forbidden). However, this form of “help” has caused consternation because many tribes have problems with alcoholism and drugs. Their leaders fear that the growth of marijuana may only make the situation worse. Only the Mohicans, who have made a lot of money on gambling (they built one of the world’s largest casinos), have expressed interest in this offer.
Also, during Obama's presidency, the Department of Justice has made out-of-tribunal agreements with some tribes, which have claimed monetary compensation for past wrongs. For example, the Navajo tribe received $500 million. It was compensation for, among other things, the uranium mines on their reservation, which were built at the end of World War II and supplied loads for atomic bombs. What remains of them today is the radioactive waste and former Native American miners who are dying from lung cancer.
Two Centuries of Negligence
It is of course impossible to make up for the harm and negligence of the last two centuries in a few years. Interestingly, however, the U.S. government has admitted, with great difficulty, to crimes and offenses against the indigenous people of America.
In 1993, Congress apologized to Hawaiians for overthrowing their queen 100 years earlier, and in 2009 (during Obama’s presidency), for the bad and cruel treatment of Native Americans. But the apology went nearly unnoticed because it was written into the U.S. defense budget on the 47th page of the 65-page bill. At the end of this apology, the following disclaimer was added: “Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”
*Editor’s note: This statement is paraphrased from a tweet by Sen. Rob Portman: “This decision by the administration is yet another example of the President going around Congress.”
**Editor’s note: These statements are paraphrased from President Obama’s remarks at the Tribal Nations Conference: “Some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry … [These children] were like Malia and Sasha — just as smart, just as hopeful, just as beautiful. But at their core, there was a nagging doubt that they would have the opportunities that my daughters had. And nothing gets me more frustrated than when I hear that ... because that's not who we are.”