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CHEROKEE — Fresh from a White House visit, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Patrick Lambert has provided an account of his first encounter with President Barack Obama.

Lambert described his Feb. 23 conversation with Obama, whom he visited with a group of Native American leaders from around the country, in a report for the March 3 edition of The One Feather, the tribe-owned newspaper.

While in Washington, Lambert also testified before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Affairs, advocating for additional transfer of lands to the EBCI nation.

Regarding his meeting with the president, “I felt very relaxed with President Obama and I think it was a very productive meeting on behalf of our Tribe,” Lambert wrote.

In a short period, he asserted, he was able to address key Cherokee issues with the president.

Inviting Obama to visit

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“I first introduced myself and (said) that it was my honor to meet him,” Lambert wrote. “I told him I have three points/issues I want to make with him.

“First, I told him that we have something in common — we both love the Smoky Mountains. He readily agreed and stated that Asheville is a favorite spot for him and his family. I then offered a suggestion. I said, ‘Mr. President before your last year in office is finished I would like for you to come visit our lands and be, to my knowledge, only the second sitting president in history to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.’ ”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the park in 1940 to dedicate its opening.

Obama replied, “How far is that from Asheville?” according to Lambert.

“I answered that it was about 1.5 hours and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a helicopter and can be there in a few minutes.’ Everyone laughed and agreed; he turned to his staff person and told him to look into it and to also book a round of golf at the Grove Park Inn.”

Gathering plants

“The second point I made was to discuss the issue of ‘gathering local foods’ in the Great Smoky Mountains and how this has been our practice for hundreds of years,” Lambert wrote.

For the past decade or so, the Cherokee have been lobbying for the legal right to harvest ginseng and ramps from national park lands, and the National Park Service has responded by crafting a new rule that could soon allow tribe members to do so.

“Now that is a solvable problem and I can make that happen,” Obama said, according to Lambert. “Unlike some of these problems on my plate like problems in Syria and Iran.”

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Obama “told his staff to pull that rule out of the stack and let’s get it completed,” Lambert recounted.

Re-opening a road

Lastly, Lambert asked Obama about re-opening a road on federal land “to provide an emergency access to/from Big Cove and our school system,” he wrote.

Obama advised Lambert to talk to the office of Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about that matter, Lambert noted.

“The meeting with the president was the highest honor I’ve had, and I am proud to represent you and our Tribe in these matters,” Lambert concluded.

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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