What I saw at the Washington, D.C. inauguration of President Obama

By Doug George-Kanentiio ©
News From Indian Country 2-09

I was present at the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States on January 20 in Washington, DC. This was actually the fourth “swearing in” ceremony I have witnessed with the other three being in 1981, 1993 and 2001 but none of those compared with this one in terms of the numbers of people or to the level of security.

The latest one was by far the most crowded with estimates ranging from 1.5 to 2 million people there. I believe the latter is correct since there were over 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial concert a couple of days previous and the inauguration one was much larger. (Note for those who want to give Obama a Native name: “Hussein” means “small handsome one” in Arabic.) 

Despite all predictions of an historic number of people going to Washington, the security planners and the public transportation organizers proved to be incompetent. They did not send enough subway trains or allow sufficient street buses into the city which meant long waits in cold temperatures and people pushing hard to find a small space on anything which might take them closer to the event or back to their hotels.

There were military units in armored cars, roof top observers with sniper rifles and cops with metal detectors standing fast at various checkpoints, some so far from the Capitol building where the inauguration was held that it was actually silly to believe anyone there could have been any threat to Obama given the mile or so which separated him from the the people at the Washington and Lincoln monuments.

The people there were extraordinarily patient despite the long walks, the empty buses rushing by and the military troops scattered along the streets, as if the city was being occupied by the army which it was. The soldiers were  grim faced and on edge, ready to bark out orders to anyone who strayed from the pack. But most people I saw, particularly the black Americans, were very happy and willing to put up with a lot of discomfort to see an event few believed would happen.

We had scouted the area a day before the inauguration and estimated it would take no more than 45 minutes from our hotel near the National Airport to the National Mall using the subway. While that seemed to be a smart thing to do we could not have known that an elderly woman would fall on the subway tracks at a distant station and the subsequent delay would mean hundreds of thousands of people would be late. 

We had a very long trudge as we snaked our way back to the Mall area where the NMAI staff was outside, waving us in. (Niawen:kowa to Chris Turner and the staff at the Museum for giving us shelter!)

I felt bad for the tens of thousands of people who could not enter the Mall and were unable to witness the inaugural ceremonies, all because they were held up for hours at undermanned checkpoints where their VIP tickets did not mean a thing.

We were given passes to the third floor observation area which gave us an excellent view of the Capitol.

Obama had to have seen our Museum as it is the one closest to the Capitol. It would have been nice for him to have waved to us or even pumped his fist. 

Now that would have sent shudders through the ruling elite.


We could see the statue of the Native woman atop the Capitol; she represents freedom and is wearing a Seneca Kustoweh. She is facing east as if on guard against intruders. Her stance is contrary to the American custom of always looking to where they are going, the west, rather then where they came from. Maybe they don’t want to see the mess they leave behind.

The concert on the Mall held January 18, as well the inauguration itself, did not have any Native presence other than small groups at the parade. No Native singer, artist or poet was invited to perform, speak or display their work. No direct mention was made about Natives by any of the prominent politicians or performers. No one said anything about our veterans, our contributions to world history or addressed our concerns.

Our musicians were deemed by California Senator Diane Feinstein and her Inauguration Committee as unworthy to take to the stage. This shows either disturbing ignorance or willful exclusion by those in the Democratic party who preach inclusiveness. We were shut out.

At least the NMAI staff made an effort to welcome thousands of Natives to Washington.

We listened to the speeches on closed circuit television and could hear the roar of the crowd as Obama was introduced.                          Obama’s speech laid out a difficult road for Americans as he now has to clean up the mess Bush and crew left behind.  Obama is a compelling speaker but his “hard reality” text lacked the poetry of Oren Lyons or the subtle humour of the late Leon Shenandoah.

I can imagine Leon telling the Americans to use a little common sense and behave as if the lives of their children were at stake. Then he would have made sure everyone was well fed. There was a cheer of relief when Bush helicoptered away. Dick Cheney was in a wheelchair and looked angry, with a scowl on that scary face.

The Native American Inaugural Ball was held the same night at the Hyatt Hotel in a downstairs room. There were Natives from across the continent including a large group from the Assembly of First Nations.

I saw Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s Grand Chief Tim Thompson in a sharp looking suit. He looked comfortable. I was told there were people from the St. Regis Tribal Council but they must have been hidden in the crowd. I did not see any Haudenosaunee leader but it would have been nice to see one of the rotiiane with their deer antler kustoweh weaving through the people.

The entertainers represented some of the best Indian Country has: Bill Miller, Derek Miller, Gary Farmer, Mike Bucher and Joanne Shenandoah.

People were there not just for the music but to visit with old friends and make new ones. I am sure a lot of business was done that night. Anyone of the performers would have done well at the Lincoln Memorial concert so I hope the recording made of our event will be sent to Senator Feinstein.

I don’t expect as much excitement for Obama’s next inauguration in 2013 but I am glad a few Haudenosaunee citizens were able to see this historic event.

We did not get to give Obama his official Mohawk name “Ranatikaiias” the “town destroyer” but maybe he will agree to meet with the Haudenosaunee later and we can officially renew our relationship with the United States.