Clinton promises Indians better relations

April 30, 1994|By Hearst News Service

WASHINGTON -- Amid pomp and pageantry, President Clinton promised the leaders of America's beleaguered Indian tribes yesterday that the federal government will strike a "new partnership" of respect and assistance for Native Americans.

The president, at a picturesque gathering of more than 200 tribal leaders, signed executive orders requiring federal agencies to deal with Indian tribes like sovereign nations and reaffirming American Indians' rights to use the feathers of endangered American eagles, peyote and tobacco in cherished religious ceremonies.

"We must dramatically improve the federal government's relationships with the tribes and become full partners with the tribal nations," Mr. Clinton said. "This great meeting today must be the beginning or our new partnership, not the end of it."

Joined by Vice President Al Gore, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cabinet leaders, Mr. Clinton heard presentations by tribal representatives about the problems and needs of nearly 2 million American Indians, nearly half of whom live on or near 387 reservations.

"I have listened carefully and learned a lot," Mr. Clinton told his audience, sprinkled with more than a dozen American Indians wearing traditional garments. Several men wore the majestic and streaming eagle-feather headdresses and decorative beaded jewelry that were seen on the western frontier in the 19th century.

Citing Americans' yearning for their nation to fulfill its potential, Mr. Clinton said it was in that "spirit and with great humility that I say to the leaders of the first Americans -- the American Indians and the Alaska natives -- welcome to the White House. Welcome home."

The White House said the meeting was the first such summit between a sitting president and leaders of most U.S. tribes.

Mr. Clinton said his executive order requires every executive department and agency to "remove all barriers" preventing them from "working directly with tribal governments" and to make certain that decisions on natural resources are made only after consultation with the tribes that ostensibly control the land.

Mr. Clinton successfully courted Indians in his 1992 bid for the presidency. But the Clinton administration has angered many American Indians with a proposed 13 percent cut in the Indian Health Service's 1995 budget.

"In quite frank, plain language, the budget stinks," said Richard LaFromboise, chairman of North Dakota's Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. "What we need is substantive relief."

Mr. Clinton announced yesterday that he would restore $120 million to the budget. The administration has also asked Congress for a $2.5 billion budget for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs -- an increase over the agency's 1994 budget of $1.8 billion.

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