updated 8/16/2004 2:45:44 PM ET 2004-08-16T18:45:44

When Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry rolled into town to court the Native vote, he brought with him some formidable assets - his firsthand knowledge of issues facing Indian country and his strong stance on respecting tribal sovereignty.

”The federal government has a special relationship with tribal nations that we need to remember. The treaties are the law of the land. It is embodied in our Constitution.

”When I take the oath of office as the President of the United States, I swear to uphold the Constitution and the treaties that are part of it,” Kerry pledged.

He also promised to name American Indians to key positions throughout his administration, including a White House liaison to Indian country, to elevate the Indian Health Service director to an assistant secretary level, and to increase funding for Indian health care and education.

Accompanied by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and about 90 journalists covering the “Believe in America” campaign tour, Kerry was looking to boost support in swing states like Arizona and New Mexico where the Native vote can make a difference.

Kerry’s whistle-stop train tour through key battleground states stopped in Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Gallup, N.M., and in Winslow and Flagstaff, Ariz. to allow him to connect with Indian leaders and voters, who helped Al Gore win New Mexico in 2000 by 366 votes. Several Pueblo governors met with him on the train from Albuquerque.

Indian veterans offer support, prayers
At the 83rd Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Pow Wow, Kerry and his wife were welcomed by a cheering crowd of about 4,000 people including veterans, dancers and singers from more than 30 tribes.

Against the backdrop of Red Rock State Park’s towering cliffs, Navajo Nation Councilman and Vietnam veteran Larry Anderson, Sr. offered a prayer for their safekeeping while fanning them with eagle feathers.

Keith Little of Crystal, N.M., one of many Navajo Code Talkers in attendance, presented Senator Kerry - a decorated war veteran who served in Vietnam alongside many American Indians - with a gift of a Navajo rug and encouraging words.

”Navajo Code Talkers made many strategic landings in our time,” said Little. “We want you to strategically plan and occupy the White House for the next few years, for the benefit of all Native Americans. When you do, we will be right there with you.”

As the crowd cheered, Kerry responded by asking veterans to stand and be recognized. He asked the audience to thank them for defending America.

Kerry, who has said America needs to live up to the obligations of its trust relationship to Indian people, touched on some of the elements outlined in his comprehensive American Indian policy intended to address rising poverty.

”It is a sad fact that one-third of Native Americans have no health insurance and that [their] life expectancy is lower than any other groups. We are spending more money on federal prisoner’s health care than on the health of Native Americans. John Edwards and I will raise funding for IHS,” he said.

Kerry later said he would roll back President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and dedicate that money to funding education for America’s children.

He also talked about the importance of acting on values, not just talking about them. “Values spoken, without actions taken, are just slogans. Values are the choices we make, and it’s time people in public life stop talking about family values and start valuing families.”

Bush missing in action
When Kerry returned to the train he was joined by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Navajo President Joe Shirley and his wife Vikki, Speaker of the Navajo Nation Council Lawrence T. Morgan, Arizona State Sen. Albert Hale, Arizona Representative Jack Jackson Jr., White Mountain Apache Chairman Dallas Massey and Navajo Council delegate Ervin Keeswood.

As the train headed for the Arizona border, dozens of Navajo people lined the railroad tracks at small communities, cheering and waving Kerry signs.

Massey told a story that exemplified much of Indian country’s frustrations with the Bush administration. When the White Mountain Apaches lost more than one-third of their timber in the 2002 massive Rodeo fire, President Bush stopped there for a photo opportunity and promised aid to the reservation.

”He said we would be the number one priority. We haven’t seen or heard from him since,” said Massey, who has tried numerous times to meet with Bush to seek help for soaring poverty and unemployment on his reservation.

President Shirley expressed similar disappointment, noting that despite many attempts, the largest Indian nation in the country has yet to secure an audience with the sitting president.

He said tribes are becoming “endangered species” whose cultures and languages are being lost without adequate funding to improve education, health care and employment opportunities.

Kerry said as he travels the country, many people tell him the Bush administration has not listened to or respected their concerns. He said many Americans have been met with “a wall of silence” while Bush caters to special interests.

Partnering with Indian nations
In his extended meeting with tribal officials, Kerry spelled out his views on the importance of respecting government-to-government relations with Indian nations. He promised to partner with tribes to improve health care, provide more educational opportunities, strengthen economic development efforts and help Native business owners create jobs.

Kerry also said it was important to find a Secretary of the Interior who would create responsive and respectful relationships with tribes. “I understand that it’s hard to find someone in Interior to talk to right now and that would make a big difference.”

Navajo Nation Speaker Lawrence Morgan told Kerry that Navajo unemployment rates run as high as 50 percent on average and Navajo government is trying to develop remedies. He said full funding is needed for BIA programs that provide roads, schools, law enforcement and a variety of other essential services. But he also asked that no changes be made to BIA without meaningful consultation with the tribes affected.

Kerry also committed to ensure that tribes would be treated as equals with states and counties to receive direct funding from Homeland Security and that he would appoint an American Indian within the department to help tribes.

Navajo leaders also discussed water rights settlements, federal funding gaps, the impact of recent Supreme Court rulings against Indian country and representation at the United Nations.

Kerry said his new energy plan, intended to decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil and to create thousands of new jobs by developing alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, would include tribal initiatives.

Senator Hale said Kerry’s meetings with Indian nations demonstrated far more respect than the Bush Administration has accorded tribes and the gesture to Indian country is an important one.

In comparison, at a speech before 7,500 minority journalists, Bush stumbled over the meaning of sovereignty.

”Tribal sovereignty means that, it’s sovereign. You’re a - you’ve been given sovereignty, and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity,” Bush said in response to a question about the meaning of tribal sovereignty.

Endorsements, support growing
In Winslow, where the campaign had planned to slow down and wave to waiting crowds, two bed sheet banners caught Kerry’s attention. One said, “Give Us 10 Minutes” and the next one said, “We’ll Give You Eight Years.”

Kerry stopped the train and took a few minutes to talk to 1,000 supporters about his plans for a better America, telling them “Help is on the way!”

Though the train was an hour late when it arrived in Flagstaff on Aug. 8, an estimated 12,000 supporters were still waiting at 10:30 on a Sunday night in Heritage Square.

The lively crowd cheered on Kerry, his wife, and daughter, Vanessa, who joined Gov. Napolitano, Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit and other supporters onstage for a rally marked by outbursts of applause.

President Shirley chose that setting to endorse the Kerry - Edwards ticket, adding to endorsements from the White Mountain Apache Tribe and dozens of other tribal leaders.

”For far too long, critical issues related to Native America have been on the back burner,” Shirley said. “Senator Kerry has listened and knows our issues and I believe he will be there for our Native people. He promised us we would be at the table and I have no reason to doubt him.”

Later, the campaign announced the formation of Native Americans for Kerry - Edwards, a group of prominent Indian people who will work to organize and mobilize the Native vote in the last 90 days before the election.

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