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Sioux Reservation Has Mixed Feelings About Obama Visit


President Obama goes to Indian Country today. He's following up on a promise made last fall to tribal leaders. Obama will go to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. It's his first visit to an Indian reservation since becoming president. And as Jim Kent reports, feelings on the reservation about their high-profile guest are mixed.

JIM KENT, BYLINE: The village of Cannon Ball is located near the northern edge of the 3,500 square mile Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, about an hour south of Bismarck. The reservation spans two states and was once the home of the legendary Sioux leader Sitting Bull. Cannon Ball was one of about a dozen communities here. Only a few square blocks in size, its streets are paved. There's a post office, one store, a gymnasium - population about 900, half of them Native American youth. Houses aren't extravagant, but most are in good repair. There are front lawns and big backyards. Like anywhere else, grandparents are sitting on their decks, enjoying the sun. Parents are doing chores or coming home from shopping. Kids are playing. Standing Rock Sioux travel chairman, David Archambault, says Cannon Ball is a pretty typical reservation community.

DAVID ARCHAMBAULT: It's a good community to visit if you want to share what represents Indian Country and how you can visibly see some hardship. But then, at the same time, you can visibly see that life.

KENT: That life is what elder Florestine Grant calls making the best of your situation. She says life on the res isn't as negative as it's portrayed.

FLORESTINE GRANT: You know, we're not wealthy or anything. Our community...We're alive, you know. We do what we have to do. I say that because I just graduated from college with a bachelor's degree.

KENT: Florestine says one way President Obama could help the people here is with more funding for education and jobs programs. Laurel Vermillion is president of Sitting Bull College, 30 miles south. Like other tribal members, Vermillion is excited the president is coming to Standing Rock, though she's disappointed he's not visiting her school.

LAUREL VERMILLION: It would have been really nice because Sitting Bull College is really a beacon of hope on the reservation. So I would've told him that and how important it is to support the tribal colleges.

KENT: On the South Dakota side of the reservation, feelings about the president's visit are decidedly more mixed. Longtime tribal councilmember Jesse Taken Alive says he knows Obama's visit is historic, and he's glad he's meeting with Native American students and attending a community powwow. But he was expecting much more from today's visit.

JESSE TAKEN ALIVE: It's most likely going to turn into picture opportunity, film opportunity - because thus far, what we've been told, the majority of decisions on the visit are being directed by the White House.

KENT: As a result, Taken Alive says serious discussions about treaty issues and government appropriations won't likely be held. Fellow council representative, Avis Little Eagle, will be attending the powwow, and hopes to give the president's staff documents detailing the illegal taking of tribal lands throughout Indian Country. She also wants the president to know that her people condemn the proposed Keystone XL pipeline expansion.

AVIS LITTLE EAGLE: We don't want that pipeline running through our lands. We want protection of the water. We want protection of our health. We want protection of our homelands.

KENT: Avis Little Eagle notes that, while it's an honor and a thrill to have the president visit Indian Country, she wants it to result in positive changes for all tribes. For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Kent is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y. A freelance writer and radio journalist who currently lives in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Jim can be heard on a variety of radio programs including National Public Radio, South Dakota Public Radio, and National Native News Radio. He is also a columnist for the Rapid City Journal and a guest columnist for the Lakota Country Times.
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