Native Americans and the 2008 election

9 years ago

According to the 2000 Census, Native Americans are only 1.5 percent of the US population, but their participation in this year's presidential election might be especially important. American Indians are a critical voting bloc in several swing states, according to a recent study. So it's  no surprise that both major presidential campaigns have aggressively pursued Native votes, Here's a backgrounder on how the election is playing out in Indian Country.

There's no question that the stakes are high for American Indian voters. High rates of poverty, disease, domestic violence and substance abuse are longstanding issues. On some reservations, dropout rates are as high as 70 percent. In Alaska, where  a fifth of the population is indigenous, residents in the Native-heavy western counties are getting hammered by gas prices as high as $7.25/gallon and milk at $9.49/gallon.  Environmental issues weigh heavily in Indian Country as well. Advvocates for expanded oil drilling and mining often target rural areas that are subject to treaties and tribal laws. In some regions, there's a worry that development will disrupt ecosystems, taint groundwater, and endanger species that tribes depend upon for food and income.

In a 2005 article published on Alternet, journalist Rose Aguilar noted that in 2004, 95 percent of Native Americans registered as Democrats. But Sen. John McCain has lots friends in Indian country, especially with his long service as former chair and veteran member of the Senate Committe on Indian Affairs. Both campaigns have Native American support groups: American Indians for McCain
and First Americans for Obama. The McCain page begins:

self-determination and economic self-sufficiency are the foundations of
John McCain's American Indian policy. John McCain will work to
strengthen the government-to-government relationship through
consultation and respect for the unique trust relationship with the
tribes that arises out of the treaties and innumerable court decisions
and Acts of Congress.

John McCain has a clear record of working for the betterment of American Indian communities throughout his career.

The Obama campaign page features this video of a campaign stop at Crow Agency in Montana last May:


Obama is one of 31 @P">co-sponsors of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a measure that he argued was long overdue since it had been 14 years since therei had been significant improvements to the laws and funding for Indian health services.

During the primary season, Obama held closed-door meetings with tribal leaders in New Mexico and South Dakota. In a May, 2008 editorial supporting his candidacy, the Native Voice cited these rump sessions as part of its favorable assessment of Obama's character and qualifications for the Oval Office. According to the newspaper, Obama asked for private meetings to encourage "straight talk" from the assembed leaders. The editors concluded:

 Barack Obama is not afraid to look at
issues of race and poverty in politics, and his speeches nationwide
have called on America to look beyond perceived differences and
find unity for solving the problems that affect us all.

However, BlogHer community member ACMcReynolds noted last spring that Obama still faces skepticism. She quotes writer Gale Courey Toensing who asks, 

"If Obama is elected president, will he be able to deliver on his
promise of change within Indian country and the rest of the country?"
asks Toensing. Put differently, is Obama creating an illusion of

In my review of articles on and offline the only reference I found for Democratic VP nominee Sen. Joe Biden in connection with Indian issues were favorable mentions of his authorship of the Violence Against Women Act.

Several writers noted that McCain's relationship with Native constituents has been challenged in recent years. In and article last month for Indian Country Today, Jerry Reed said that some Native voters were put off by McCain's enlistment of disgraced lobbyist Ralph Reed, a fomer business associate of Jack Abramoff, who was recently sentenced to prison for biiking several tribes out of millions of dollars that paid for illegal gifts to Congressional representatives. And there are other concerns as well -- fears that he will reverse himself and suppport drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife reserve, for example.

No presidential candidate in living memory
has ever had the positive credentials in Indian country that McCain can
bring to the Oval Office, [former US Attorney Thomas B.] Heffelfinger said. ''You know where his
commitment lies, and it will be strong. ... That's an incredible
opportunity, in my opinion.''

But it's an opportunity for McCain as well, to gain a
constituency in Indian-populous key states, and indications that he
hasn't seized it so far continue to register....



Those impressions track with bloggers'  reports on Native American involvement at the Democratic and Republican conventions. There was a First Americans caucus at the Democratic Convention, a development that impressed's Victor Merina. Writing on the eve of the Denver convention, Merina noted:

In Denver, there will be 143 self-identified Native delegates to the
Democratic gathering compared to 86 in 2004, according to convention
officials. Among the tribes represented will be the Tohono O’odham,
Morongo, Navajo, Comanche, Northern Arapaho, Kickapoo, Comanche,
Cherokee and Umatilla....

The Native delegates want to see the next president appoint an Interior Secretary  and a senior official at the Office of Management and Budget with a deep understanding of Native issues. He also promised to meet with a broad array of tribal leaders. That prospect excites SE Ruckman, who wrote:

I don’t know about the rest of Indian Country but I know I have longed
for a relationship with the federal government that bespoke of dignity
and respect. Our history is littered with various outreaches based of
sincere promises. Many tendered them to receive something from us with
little intention of giving back.

 Blogging at the Daily Yonder, Mary Anne Pember observed that the most visible Native presence at the Republican convention was the participation of veterans from the Ojibwe reservation in the opening ceremonies:

 Somehow we hear that Bobby Cleveland, Choctaw, of Oklahoma, is a GOP
delegate. He is the sole Native American delegate at the convention.
That’s pretty much it for Native Americans at the GOP Convention in St.

As Senator of Arizona, a state with 20 tribes, and his years of service
on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, McCain has often supported
and sponsored legislation beneficial to Indian people. He has also
spoken in favor of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. But
McCain and his campaign have clearly indicated that native people
should not set their sights on becoming traditional players in his
presidential campaign.



Pember might have been helped by this guide to events involving Native Americans at the GOP convention, courtesy of the National Congress of American Indians. (.pdf)

The selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as the GOP candidate for vice president led to this mixed report on her record on native issues from Reznet. She gets positive marks for her accessibllty and willingness to listen to native concerns. However, some voters are upset that she opposed Proposition 4, which would have restricted mining practices that are allegedly poisoning the habitat for salmon, which is important both fo food and commerce. Alaskans defeated the measure handily last month.  Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the NCAL commented:

"I think that is good for Native issues that she is a candidate for
vice president. That does strengthen the McCain nomination."

Articles from libary databases (not online):

Choosing a Candidate: The
Native Voice Endorses Barack Obama
Native Voice.  Rapid City, S.D.:May 2008.  Vol.
7,  Iss. 4,  p. 1,4 (2 pp.)

A message we didn't hear at 'Prez on the Rez'

Jerry Reynolds.  Indian Country Today.  Oneida, N.Y.:Sep 5, 2007.  Vol. 27,  Iss. 13,  p. A2 (1 pp.)

John McCain on Native American Policy

Anonymous.  News from Indian Country.  Hayward, Wis.:Mar 31, 2008.  Vol. 22,  Iss. 7,  p. 31 (1 pp.)