CANNON BALL, N.D. – When Alma Thunder Hawk moved back to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation five decades ago, she, her parents and six relatives had to live in a tent on the North Dakota prairie.
Now, with her government-issued trailer uninhabitable, Thunder Hawk moves from house to house among friends in Cannon Ball, the Native American community of less than 1,000 that President Barack Obama will visit Friday. It’s his first trip to Indian Country as president and only the third such visit by a sitting president in almost 80 years.
At their pow wow grounds, residents of the reservation that straddles the border between North Dakota and South Dakota plan to show Obama their traditions. But they also hope he sees their issues: the lack of adequate housing, health care and education, among others, that plague the reservation and other parts of Indian Country.
“Around here, they need to do something, especially for the homeless,” said Thunder Hawk, who says she hasn’t lived in her home, a sheet-metal trailer that’s infested with mice and lacks running water, for almost two years. “I can’t live in there,” she added. “I’m elderly. I’ve been trying to get help. Nobody will help me.”
While it’s an honor to host Obama, residents say, they want to hear solutions from the man who as a presidential candidate six years ago declared, “This election is about Indian Country.”
Obama has said he wants to hear firsthand about challenges Native Americans face and plans to announce initiatives to help expand Indian economies.
In 2008, he had met privately with about 50 Lakota leaders from across South Dakota, and later spoke about the need to assist communities that have often been betrayed and have had a hard time digging out of poverty. He pledged to expand health services, improve education, combat methamphetamine dealers, promote economic development and improve housing on reservations.
At the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, some residents said many promises haven’t been met.
“He needs to do a study,” said local resident Leroy Laundreaux. “I mean actually do a study, not just say he’s going to fix the problems, I mean get a committee together and actually address them.”
Rev. Buford Marsh, who lives in a trailer behind the mission in Cannon Ball, said housing remains an issue, with too many people and not enough homes, and said drug and alcohol use is still fairly rampant on the reservation, which covers 2.3 million acres.
Duane Uses Arrow, a former Bureau of Indian Affairs officer, said wait times at the local Indian Health Services clinic average about six hours.
“I think the Indian Health Service has taken a step backwards. It hasn’t progressed,” he said.
Around Cannon Ball, a handful of houses sit with boarded-up windows, stray dogs roam and a group of young men hang out on a back porch in the early afternoon. The aroma of alcohol hangs in the air. A report released in January by the Bureau of Indian Affairs showed about 63 percent of able workers on Standing Rock were unemployed.
“Life on the reservation is tough. It’s a struggle,” said Edward American Horse.
Still, some on the reservation said they feel Obama has done better than his predecessors.
Ron His Horse is Thunder, an enrolled member of the tribe and its former chairman, said he believes Obama has helped American Indians more than any president since Richard Nixon — helping settle outstanding lawsuits and prosecuting offenders.
Under the Obama administration, the former chairman said, the Department of Justice has made a concerted effort to charge and prosecute more crimes on reservations. Before Obama took office, “basically 50 percent (of cases) were never prosecuted,” he said.
The increase in prosecutions in Indian Country since 2009 is “a result of closer working relationships with tribal law enforcement partners,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week while visiting North Dakota. Holder cited a major drug sting on a North Dakota reservation as one example.
And news of the president’s visit has also been inspiring to some. Curtis Brave Bull, a Cannon Ball resident, said he’s seen people working to spruce up the town that has seen hard times for many years.
“This is like a ghetto on the prairie, but we now we have to clean things up (for his visit),” said Brave Bull. “Cannon Ball’s going to be put on the map,” he said. “So maybe something good will come out of it.”
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