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Community Members Sing Traditional Bird Song in Honor of President Obama

President Barack Obama, draped with a new blanket, stands as SRPMIC members Kelly Washington and Martha Ludlow Martinez sing a bird song in his honor. The song was part of Obama's final White House Tribal Nations Conference on September 26 in Washington, D.C. Photo submitted by Martha Ludlow Martinez.

President Barack Obama’s final White House Tribal Nations Conference included a major Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community connection.

Moments before President Obama delivered his tribal nations speech on September 26 in Washington, D.C., Community members Kelly Washington and Martha Ludlow Martinez stood next to the president and sang a bird song in his honor.

Obama’s speech came at the closing of his eighth and final White House Tribal Nations Conference, which was held at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. The audience included SRPMIC President Delbert Ray, Sr. and dozens of other tribal leaders from across the country. As Obama took the stage, the crowd roared and cameras flashed across the stage, nearly blinding Washington and Ludlow.

“When we got on stage, going out there in front of everybody and of course being next to the president, my heart started thumping a little bit,” Washington said.

“It almost felt like a dream,” Martinez said. “I felt anxious; I felt nervous. I thought, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ It felt like a dream until he came up to me.”

As Washington and Martinez sang, National Congress of American Indians President Brian Cladoosby and Mohegan Chief Lynn Malerba presented Obama with a blanket and a cedar hat that Cladoosby was wearing. Byron Nicholai (Yup’ik) sang a traditional song after the bird song. The songs and blanket presentation lasted less than three minutes, per request. Afterward, Obama thanked each singer, shook hands and gave each person a hug.

“I had no idea I was going to be right next to him,” Martinez said. “It was awesome.”

President Barack Obama hugs SRPMIC member Kelly Washington. Photo submitted by Martha Ludlow Martinez. President Barack Obama hugs SRPMIC member Martha Ludlow Martinez. Photo submitted by Martha Ludlow Martinez

Washington is the director and Martinez is the NAGPRA coordinator for the SRPMIC Cultural Resources Department. Martinez is also the reigning Miss Indian Scottsdale Community College and a member of the Bird Singing and Dancing by the River traditional dance group.

The whirlwind trip lasted four days. Washington and Martinez didn’t know about the trip until a couple days before they left, and they didn’t learn they would be singing next to Obama until the night before the conference.

Before Washington left Arizona, in a conference call with NCAI representatives he said he had to share a sample of the song and describe what clothes he and Martinez would wear on stage. Both had to submit a biography for a background check, Washington said.

The evening before the conference, the three singers had an on-site walk-through on stage. Still, singing in front of Obama, or even taking the stage, wasn’t guaranteed. Security was tight and time was precious. On the day of the conference, moments before the singers were set to take the stage, the Secret Service questioned Washington’s gourd rattle and Nicholai’s hand drum, but both were cleared shortly after.

“It was my honor and privilege to represent the Community in this way, and I appreciate the Community providing me the opportunity,” Washington said. “The office of President of the United States is one to be respected, no matter the party or individual that holds it.

“The organizers specifically asked for a bird song for this event. I know there are bird singers in the Community with more knowledge and talent than I, but for whatever reasons, fate tapped me on my shoulder for this moment and I responded. I wish Ron Carlos, Ronnie Mack and Lynwood Vest could have been there with us. In a way, I guess they were there, because I don’t think Martha and I would have been there without their teachings and influence.”

This wasn’t the first time a member of the Obama family and Martinez met. In 2015, Martinez was in Washington for the White House Tribal Youth Gathering and shook First Lady Michelle Obama’s hand when she greeted the crowd. But this time, she shared the stage with President Obama.

“For me, it made an impact because he is one of the few presidents that I’ll probably ever get to see that is really in support of Indigenous people,” she said. “This could potentially be the last [White House Tribal Nations Conference], and with that, I was part of the experience and I was onstage with the president [who] really pushed a lot to help us as much as he could.”