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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Native American Family To See Adopted Son Sworn In
by Michael Laris - The Washington Post - Staff Writer
credits: photo by Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post

Back home in Lodge Grass, Mont., they keep talking about Hartford Black Eagle's luck.

"People around here, even the white people, say, 'You're the luckiest the person in the world. You adopted the president of the United States!' " he said.

"Thank you," is his usual response.

But Black Eagle doesn't see his role in today's inauguration in terms of good fortune. He sees something sacred. He and Mary, his wife of 57 years, were set to be whisked to the Capitol by inauguration organizers early today for the swearing-in, where they will be seated near the center of American power.

The couple adopted Barack Obama in a traditional Native American ceremony in May, when the candidate made a campaign stop at the vast Crow reservation.

The adoption marked an unusually intimate intertwining of politics, history and family -- but one that perhaps seems less jarring in the case of a president who reached today's swearing-in, at least in part, on the power of his personal story and its broader appeal.

Obama's outreach to Native Americans was part of a political strategy during critical primary battles in Western states. Native American leaders, too, want more power to control their lands and lives, seeking policy influence on such issues as coal mining, the environment, and the economic stimulus package.

But an adoption is no slapdash honorary degree or campaign prop. It's a revered compact that has linked the first family with five generations of First Americans. Obama's daughters, Sasha and Malia, beamed as they met their adoptive grandparents over the summer.

Four of those generations of Black Eagles came to Washington to witness their new relative's elevation. Hartford and Mary will have prime viewing seats for the ceremony. She will wear a traditional elk tooth coat, made of deep-pink wool. (The teeth and sinews have gone plastic.) Hartford will don a buckskin vest he's saving for the occasion, with six elegant rows of blue and red beads.

Yesterday, they took a moment to see the sights.

"That's where your son lives," Mary, 74, told her husband yesterday as they glimpsed the White House on their first trip to Washington.

"There are a lot of ghosts in there," Hartford, 75, responded.

Mary first learned that her family was about to grow as she was on a long drive to Arizona. Her son, Cedric, vice chairman of the tribe, was on the cellphone.

"I was already around Wyoming someplace. He called me and said we're going to have to rush right back," Mary said. "He said, 'You're going to have to adopt Barack Obama.' "

They were tentative about taking on the sudden responsibility. "I couldn't comprehend it for a while," Mary said.

On the day Obama arrived at the reservation, she froze.

"When my alarm came on, I didn't want to go through with it. 'I would like to go sleep another eight hours,' I said. 'Not me. I don't want to go,' " she recalled telling Hartford. But, "my husband got after me."

She couldn't eat. Waiting for Obama in the Secret Service's security area, "we were so nervous my mouth dried up," she said. No purses were allowed. "I needed ChapStick so bad."

Then Obama walked in and greeted the dignitaries, before the room was mostly cleared out.

"He started walking toward me. Oh man, I was kind of tongue-tied, and he said, 'Are you my new mother, Mary?' And I said 'Yes.' He just gave me a hug."

At the private adoption, Hartford waved smoke from burning cedar needles over Obama, twice in the front and twice in the back, with a bald eagle fan. Afterward, Obama told reporters he was deeply moved by the ceremony, and he vowed that if he won, he would have his new parents come to the White House.

Hartford is a spiritual healer and had been given the crucial, sacred responsibility of christening Obama with a Crow name.

The act of naming is supposed to reflect the past of the person bestowing the name and the future of the person receiving it, Hartford said.

The request for Obama's name came with an added sensitivity: the possibility of a pre-presidential veto. Obama's people were on the lookout for potential embarrassment, said Aubrey Black Eagle, Mary and Hartford's grandson.

As it happened, "Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuxshish" was the name Hartford chose. It reflected Hartford's own travels as a healer, and translates as: "One Who Helps People Throughout This Land."

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