Obama brings Native youth into spotlight

President Obama and Tatiana Ticknor, 16, of Anchorage.
President Obama and Tatiana Ticknor, 16, of Anchorage. (Photo: Whitehouse.gov)

Politicians and captains of industry would give a small fortune for this invitation, but a 16-year-old Anchorage girl had an hour-long discussion yesterday with the President of the United States. The opportunity came as President Obama addressed the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an annual event that started with his administration.

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“You know, when I ran for office, I pledged to build a true nation to nation relationship with you. Back then, I was just a young adopted son of the Crow Nation. Didn’t have any gray hair,” he said. “Now I’m President Barack Black Eagle.”

Obama sat for an armchair chat on stage with five Native youth. One of them was Tatiana Ticknor, an Anchorage girl of Yup’ik, Dena’ina and Tlingit heritage. Tatiana, seated right next to Obama, had the first question.

“Hello,” she said, in a quiet tone that seemed to acknowledge the comic awkwardness of the moment.

“Hello,” responded Obama, echoing her tone and drawing a laugh from the crowd.

She asked about how to combat racism and end stereotyping in schools. Obama talked about the importance of good teachers, and how Indian mascots alienate Native students. He went on to field questions about suicide prevention, paying for college and poor living conditions.

“It’s not acceptable that anybody doesn’t have running water in this country, right?” he said. “So that’s just a straight forward matter of getting the help from Congress, to help build out the infrastructure that people need.”

Obama has made his outreach to Indian communities, particularly Native youth, a hallmark of his presidency. He’s one of a handful of sitting presidents to ever visit a reservation. And yesterday, he spoke a few times about his recent travels in rural Alaska — including the story of the salmon that spawned on his shoe.

On stage, Obama was asked what he’s doing to ensure the next president will listen to Native voices.

“The good news is the tribes now know what’s possible,” he said, “so they can hold accountable the next administration and say, ‘Hey, we were meeting with Obama and his team once a year … And we haven’t seen you.’”

Obama asked for help on some of the questions. Tatiana Ticknor offered her school’s “Native word of the day” announcement as a positive example, along with a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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