updated 2/27/2007 8:41:43 PM ET 2007-02-28T01:41:43

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has become the first 2008 presidential candidate to accept an invitation to American Indians' "Prez on the Rez" debate this summer.

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The debate is slated for Aug. 23 at the Morongo band of Mission Indians reservation outside Palm Springs, Calif.

Richardson, speaking to the executive council of the National Congress of American Indians on Monday, said that if he's elected in 2008, he would create the first-ever Cabinet-level Department of Indian Affairs.

"Needless to say, the head of this department will be a Native American," he said.

He also promised to resolve the multibillion-dollar lawsuit over Indian trust lands. Indians have claimed in a class-action lawsuit that the government has mismanaged more than $100 billion in oil, gas, timber and other royalties held in trust from their lands dating back to 1887.

"Mainly with Native American issues, there's been no one stronger," Richardson said.

"I will come to Indian country. Of course I want your support," he said.

Richardson's 2008 campaign may trail the top-tier candidates — New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards — in name recognition and fundraising, but he got several standing ovations at Monday's meeting.

"I'm a little bit behind — not too far," he said. "Give me a chance, look at my record. This election is not over."

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