nu-medicine-wheelI watched the inaugural festivities today, like many Americans, with pride and a bit of disbelief that I had actually witnessed the election of an African-American president in my lifetime. We had a mini-party in my office, a few friends and co-workers, to watch the oath and inaugural address, to witness a moment in history and to seek inspiration in the words of the man who will now lead us, as he noted, “amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”

President Obama’s speech hit many of the right notes, this passage in particular:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers … our forefathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

… even as it failed to deliver that one great line that had defined previous inaugural speeches — “Ask not what your country can do for you…” or “the only thing we have to fear. . .is fear itself.”

A couple of lines in the speech, though, hit my ears with a thud. President Obama (I love typing those words) made a real point of reaching out to American Indians during the campaign and had promised to maintain the United States’ nation-to-nation relationship with the 600 native nations that are spread across this country. So it was a bit jarring to hear:

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom. … For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

Here’s a bulletin, Mr. President: American Indians see nothing to celebrate in the “settlement” of the West. Look in the Old Testament in the book you swore your oath on today. There in Exodus 20:2–17 is the commandment “you shall not steal.” That includes land.

The second jarring passage:

We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve

I understand what the president was getting at: We must, as a nation, stop focusing on the things that divide us and find strength in those that unite us. I get that. But, speaking as a person who identifies strongly with his own tribe, I don’t believe that we must erase who we are and melt into some homogeneous mass to move forward or to thrive as a nation. We can maintain our tribal identities and unite as a nation behind a shared purpose or to battle a common enemy. It is the richness of our diverse experiences, perspectives and insights that gives us our strength as a people.

Still in all, today was a day that gives me hope for our nation and our way of life. I trust that President Obama will live up to the commitments he made in Indian Country during the campaign and that, over time, he will come to see why Western conquest is not an accomplishment to be celebrated by the people who were here first and who are still here.