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updated 12/17/2003 4:08:32 PM ET 2003-12-17T21:08:32

The attendance in person or via message at the recent 60th annual conference of the National Congress of American Indians by all the top contenders for the Democratic Party presidential nomination brought to the forefront the growing acknowledgment by American politicians that Native peoples have fully entered the electoral arena. For once, it is great to see presidential candidates active early in courting the tribes and even the individual Indian vote.

We especially commend Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and recently re-elected president of NCAI, for the persistent intelligence he has brought to the national Native political scene. NCAI has moved now to hold its annual conference next October in Florida. This astute move will place Indian issues and positions at the political epicenter of the presidential election just prior to the national vote.

It is early in the campaign season and we are not suggesting any kind of endorsement yet, but as the Democratic hopefuls trot out their slogans and campaign positions, it becomes clear that the lessons of recent election cycles, when the Native vote plus tribal contributions made the difference in several campaigns, has not gone unnoticed. Even the major contributions of several California tribes to Cruz Bustamante’s gubernatorial campaign against Arnold Schwarzenegger - controversial and ill-fated though they were - had the effect of further educating American politicians on the desirability of courting the tribal bases.

While there are relatively few Indian registered voters on a national scale - some 1.5 million - courting Indian country is certainly a good idea in several states where the American Indian vote can tip the scales. Tight election margins can make the Native vote decisive in New Mexico, South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Washington and Alaska. NCAI has been at the forefront of leading the Native population to the polls. Its voter registration initiative, Native Vote 2004, which will track candidates’ positions on Indian issues in state and national elections, is well under way.

As the Democrats come calling, contrast with the Republicans is inevitable. The Bush White House has not compiled a stellar record regarding American Indian issues. There are great and noble allies of Native peoples among Republicans to be sure, but the GOP, as a party, remains significantly bound in an evolution led by its more ideological wing and has not genuinely committed to Indian issues and to the historic and inherent reality of Indian sovereignty. More generally behind the party, the right wing as a movement has not been generous toward Indians. Among the right wing, talk-radio operatives and editorial writers who seem locked-in-step in their political opinions, for example, nothing positive has been heard about American Indians.

This is not to say that Republicans could not fully develop a good and workable perspective and policy on Native peoples and tribal sovereignty rights. The GOP platform of election year 2000 was not a bad start.  Problem is that it has not been followed by political will toward practical implementation of stated policies. Antagonisms have become obvious and, of recent, a spate of positions countering tribal aspirations makes the case pretty strongly that tribal concerns are of little consequence if at any time they stand in the way of political expediency.

The recent midnight rider disallowing a proper, agreed-upon process on solving the trust accounts case leaves a bad taste.  Suddenly Indians have to wait, once more for an accurate accounting and financial justice, as the federal budget grows again a large deficit. The Native leadership has also continually criticized the convoluted and unfruitful consultations on BIA reorganization. Interior’s decisions on water allocation in river systems that support salmon and important to tribes have not been positive. The challenge in November by the Justice Department, requesting the overturn of two decisions that favored tribal interests by the U.S. Supreme Court and seeking further regulation of tribal gaming is also cause for alarm.

Thus the Democrats - seizing the opportunity - were out in force and making their case as champions of Indian rights. Frontrunner Howard Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark appeared in person, while Sen. Joe Lieberman, (Conn.), Rep. Dick Gephardt (Iowa) and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), sent in pre-recorded messages and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) spoke to the convention live via satellite. They were all considerably forthcoming in their offers of support for tribal rights, speaking on the need to uphold treaty rights, to protect the government-to-government relation and to increase funding for Indian health care, housing and other programs. Most candidates also called for an accounting of billions owed to individual Indians and tribes.

Dean went furthest when he promised to settle the Cobell lawsuit within two years. Dean also declared himself against taxation on Indian lands and promised that he would veto legislation forcing any such taxation. This was important for Dean, considering that he fought Abenaki tribal recognition on those grounds while governor of Vermont. As governor Dean also strongly supported the Istook bill, which intended to restrict the Secretary of Interior from taking land into trust for tribes in order to force tribes to collect state taxes. Dean has openly and radically repudiated and corrected those positions as presidential candidate, suggesting perhaps that he is educable on such matters.

Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO, stressed the need for the federal government to exercise true trust responsibility. Dick Gephardt stood on his history of fighting in Congress against initiatives to diminish tribal rights. Both Gephardt and Dean promised to nominate judges, including Native Americans who understand tribal sovereignty. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., vowed to uphold sovereignty and treaties and urged particular support of Indian land and water rights. Joe Lieberman recommended more resources for Indian health, economic development, law enforcement and housing. John Kerry spoke of a comprehensive agenda for Native Americans that would include anti-terrorism funding, also supported by Dean. These welcome public expressions by the Democratic candidates for president would seem to indicate that the Democratic Party is working hard to build strong relations with Indian country.

The 2004 presidential election is a year away, and clearly, this is a lifetime in politics. Anything can happen. It augurs well for Indian political bases, though, that the Democratic candidates are addressing Indian leaders early, passionately, and in number. Among the Democratic hopefuls, the important notion is just how capable each of them can be of being properly educated on American Indian tribal rights at the beginning of the 21st century. It remains to be seen how convincingly the Bush people - deploying such stalwart Republican Indian allies as Ben Nighthorse Campbell, J.D. Hayworth, and John McCain - will present the Administration’s record and actual commitments to tribal Americans. There too remains the "spoiler element" in the Green Party ticket of Ralph Nader and Winona LaDuke, who still sustain their intellectually myopic - some would say, dishonest - position that there is no fundamental difference in positions between Democrats and Republicans.

Over the course of the coming year and beginning with a special 2004 Campaign edition on Jan. 7 (Vol. 23, Iss. 30). Indian Country Today will be providing consistent in-depth coverage of the contests for president and other important political races across the country. Join us as this newspaper reports not only on campaign events but also investigates the Indian affairs records of all serious contenders for elected public office.

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