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Spirit Lake chair agrees with president’s focus on education

President Barack Obama gathers with children for a photo after his speech at the Standing Rock Reservation Friday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

CANNON BALL, N.D. — The chairman of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe was happy with what he heard from President Barack Obama here Friday.


Sitting with fellow tribal leaders just behind Obama during his speech in Cannon Ball, Russ McDonald said he was pleased the president focused part of his remarks on American Indian education. Obama announced several reforms Friday aimed at improving the American Indian education system.

“I think education is an intervention in itself,” McDonald said after the historic speech. “No matter what kind of race you are, no matter where you come from, if you’re living in poverty and you become educated, you have the chance to pull yourself out.”

McDonald was one of many tribal leaders from North Dakota and elsewhere to see Obama speak at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation just south of Bismarck. Spirit Lake is a reservation just south of Devils Lake.

For Obama, the visit proved historic as it was his first visit as president to an Indian reservation — and just the fourth by a sitting U.S. president. It also marked Obama’s first visit to North Dakota since winning the presidency in 2008.

McDonald said improving education can help tribes in other areas as well, whether it’s helping people understand how to write grants or build homes.

“I think it makes us better able to advocate for the resources that we need, but it also helps us build a capacity to access those resources,” he said.

To push for better schools, as well as economic development and criminal justice, Obama invoked the words of the Chief Sitting Bull, the most famous resident of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where Cannon Ball is located.

“He said, ‘Let’s put our minds together to see what we can build for our children,’” Obama said. “Let’s put our minds together to improve our schools because our children deserve a world class education too.”

Among the changes the Obama Administration announced Friday was an order signed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, also in attendance at Standing Rock, to increase tribal control of schools.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., praised Obama’s efforts in improving American Indian education, but noted that some of them have been discussed in congressional committees. She said his announced reforms in economic development are even more significant.

Among them, Heitkamp noted, is a proposed rule to streamline the easement process on tribal land that should allow for quicker construction of needed infrastructure, like broadband Internet for schools. She said fast Internet access is needed on Indian reservations.

“Because now, those are your libraries,” she said after the speech. 

Heitkamp said people often focus on the negative things that happen on reservations, including elevated levels of poverty. But she said Friday’s event was a chance for the American Indian communities to come together and showcase their culture.

“I was glad the president was able to see it,” she said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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