WASHINGTON President Barack Obama said on Thursday he was giving a belated U.S. endorsement to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, drawing hearty applause from a gathering of Native Americans.
The U.N. declaration recognizes the rights of indigenous groups, like American Indians, in such areas as culture, property and self-determination.
The United States was one of a handful of countries to refrain from backing the doctrine in the past, but following a recent review of the government's position, Obama said, "I can announce that the United States is lending its support to this declaration.
"The aspirations it affirms -- including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples -- are ones we must always seek to fulfill," he said in opening the White House Tribal Nations Conference at the Interior Department.
He added that "what matters far more than words, what matters far more than any resolution or declaration, are actions to match those words."
Welcoming the move, Robert Coulter of the Indian Law Resource Center said in a written statement: "The Declaration sets an agenda for the United States and Indian nations to design a reasonable approach to a progressive realization of the duties and responsibilities in it."
"It serves as a guide for consultations among Indian and Alaska Native nations and U.S. governmental departments and agencies," he said.
Obama told the conference gathering of some 500, including more than 320 representatives of federally recognized tribes, that the White House would issue further details about the endorsement of the declaration later.
Critics say the declaration could lead to American tribes gaining more independence and economic power than is reasonable.
Fawn Sharp of the Quinault Indian Nation said in introducing Obama that "extraordinary strides have been made in restoring trust between" Indian country and the federal government under the Obama administration.
In his speech the president outlined a number of programs his administration had implemented and supported that he said demonstrate its commitment to improving conditions for Native Americans and their relationship with the government.
They included bills to enhance judicial and law enforcement systems on Indian reservations, and to bolster health care.
"We know that Native Americans die of illnesses like diabetes, pneumonia, flu -- even tuberculosis -- at far higher rates than the rest of the population," Obama said. "Closing these gaps is not just a question of policy, it's a question of our values."
He also cited improvements to roads and Internet services, and suggested many of his administration's broader economic programs would help Indians as well as other Americans.
On a lighter note, he recalled a presidential campaign visit he paid to the Crow Nation reservation in Montana, where he said the Crow name he was given was: "One who helps people throughout the land."
He joked that his wife said his name should be: "One who is not picking up his shoes and his socks."
(Reporting by Caren Bohan; Writing by Jerry Norton; Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)