When Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated for a second term on January 21, 2013, it marked the first time in this nation's history that the adopted son of a Native American Indian tribal elder would take the oath of office as President of the United States.
Although born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to an Anglo mother and an African father, it is perhaps a little-known fact that Obama, whose Apsaalooke (Crow) Indian name, Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuxshish (One Who Helps People Throughout the Land) was also the adopted son of Crow elder, the late Hartford “Sonny” Black Eagle, Jr., and of his wife of 62 years, Mary (Walks Over Ice) Black Eagle.
Born Alaxalushihixiassaah (Thundering Hoof) in the Crow Agency in 1933, Sonny Black Eagle was so impressed that the 2008 freshman senator from Illinois was the first ever presidential candidate to visit his nation, he adopted Obama as his own son in a private traditional ceremony and gave him his Native Indian name. The adoption also made Obama an honorary member of the Crow Nation.
The Black Eagles became his new parents partly because they had five living generations on the reservation. Given their short life expectancy, the Reservation Crow Indians consider the survival of so many members of one family a great fortune.
An adopted child himself in a sense, Hartford Black Eagle was reared by his grandparents when his mother died of tuberculosis when he was an infant.
Perhaps because both of Obama's own parents are dead, he took his adoption very seriously. Mary Black Eagle stated that she said to her new son, “Remember me when you make it to the White House.” The then-presidential candidate promised he would do just that, and stated, "Mom, you're going to be there with me, too."
In demonstration of the bond between them, the Black Eagles were indeed present at his 2009 inauguration and visited Obama in the White House on a number of other occasions.
Sonny Black Eagle died in his sleep at his Crow Reservation (Montana) home on November 26, 2012, only days shy of his 79th birthday. He had contracted pneumonia several months prior to his death, and afterwards had suffered from respiratory problems.
On December 5, 2012, during the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference when the President meets with Native American Indian tribal leaders from across the United States, Obama, in a tribute to his adoptive father, acknowledged that the Crow elder lived a remarkable life even as he endured the agonizing racist attitudes of the day.
Among his many painful experiences, he recounted being beaten in boarding schools for speaking his Native tongue and observing racist signs of the era that stated, No dogs or Indians allowed.
A traditional healer as well as esteemed elder, Sonny Black Eagle was also a member of several organizations including the Pentecostal Church. He was known for his stories of how he, having lived to see his great-great-grandchildren, was also conferred the mantle of preserving his nation's culture through teaching his people their language and customs.
The President was listed as a son in his obituary, although the elder Black Eagle was never known to brag about his world-famous adoptive son who held the most powerful position on earth.
In spite of the difficulties of Black Eagles' earlier life, Obama recognized that, not only did he overcome them, he lived to adopt a future president as his own son, and into the Apsaalooke Nation. Obama further honored him as one whose life also exemplified an entire country's “journey to keep perfecting itself.”
Hartford "Sonny" Black Eagle was recognized by many as having lived by the belief, “There is but one race—humanity.”
Sources: Brown, Matthew, Montana Crow elder who adopted Obama dies, Long Island Newsday, December 2, 2012; Hotakainen, Rob, Obama loses his adoptive father, Obituary, Billings Gazette, November 28, 2012; Hotakainen, Rob, Barack 'Black Eagle' Obama loses his adoptive father, The Olympian, November 28, 2012; Jawort, Adrian, President Obama's Adoptive Crow Father, Sonny Black Eagle, Walks On, Indian Country Today Media Network, November 28, 2012; Walsh, Kenneth T., Barack Obama Elected President, U.S. News, November 4, 2008; Zeleny, Jeff, Obama Adopted by Native Americans, The Caucus, The Politics and Government Blog of The Times, May 19, 2008.
K.B. Schaller, journalist, novelist, guest blogger and conference speaker is author of Gray Rainbow Journey (National Best Books Award Winner, USA Book News; Winner, Florida Publishers President’s Best Books Award; and Journey by the Sackcloth Moon (both OakTara). She is a columnist for Indian Life newspaper, moderates a LinkedIn thread, and lives with her family in the Broward County-Miami Dade area. She is currently completing Journey Through the Night's Door, the 3rd novel in her Journey series.