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Old 08-09-2004, 05:04 PM   #1
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Analysis: Second thoughts on Democratic Party

Analysis: Second thoughts on Democratic Party

Posted: August 06, 2004 - 1:59pm EST
by: Jim Adams / Associate Editor / Indian Country Today

BOSTON - Before Indian voters yield entirely to the seductive call of the Democratic Party, it’s time to take a deeper look at some conflicts that were only partly glossed over by the tightly orchestrated Democratic Nominating Convention here.

If Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was a prominent face here, with his need for reservation votes to win re-election this year in South Dakota, so was his assistant leader U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the self-proclaimed son of a gold miner who some would say has just engineered the biggest land fraud on Indians of our generation.

If U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., won loud applause from the Native American Caucus by supporting tribal sovereignty against the National Labor Relations Board, his proposed compromise drew a thunderous silence and some worried frowns.

If the party platform gave strong support to the government-to-government principle, none of the prime-time speeches gave it much play, and, as some Indians noted, one of the oratorical highlights, the well-received address from Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, featured a line that could have come straight from the leaflets of the anti-Indian "property owners" groups.

Even Democratic candidates of Indian heritage sometimes play it safe on tribal controversies. For instance, U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, the presumptive Democratic candidate for Senate in Oklahoma and an enrolled Cherokee, has not taken a position on the return of Fort Reno land to the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. His non-involvement might derive from the vastly different historical experience of the eastern Oklahoma tribes of his Congressional district, exiled from east of the Mississippi, and the western tribes from the Plains, but it also reflects the political reality that even Indian candidates need non-Indian votes.

Certainly the Democratic Party has a deep, possibly unshakeable claim on Indian voters, who have given its Presidential candidates a higher percentage of their votes than even its stalwart African American constituency. U.S. Sen. John Kerry is gearing an impressive portion of his Presidential campaign to Native outreach, including visits Aug. 8 to tribal leaders in New Mexico and Arizona. Judging from his position papers of nearly a year ago, he could be called a candidate who "gets it" on the issue of tribal sovereignty, as it could have been said of Richard Nixon a generation ago.

Kerry’s strategists see the key to what could be another unbearably-close election. In spite of the fixation at National Public Radio on "swing voters," control of the Presidency and maybe Congress will not hinge on the relative few in a static electorate who have not made up their minds; it will be decided by an influx of new voters from previously under-represented groups. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, is on to something in his call for a million new Indian voters. The numbers are do-able. (He can claim credit for anyone his voter drives bring in, regardless of tribal enrollment.) And the pay-off could be immense.

But, as so many small incidents at the convention illustrated, increased influence will not come automatically. Take for instance, one of the few spontaneously-exciting moments, the speech by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the widely disregarded former Presidential candidate. Sharpton brought the audience to its feet with a roar when he spurned the suggestion by President Bush that African American voters could increase their influence by occasionally supporting Republicans. "Our vote was won by the blood of martyrs," he shouted, to sustained applause. But Sharpton’s own Presidential campaign was sustained by the inventive Republican strategist Roger Stone, for reasons still not entirely clear. Native leaders should ponder the disconnect between political reality and rhetoric, no matter how thrilling.

The question should always arise, why give unqualified support in return for nothing but lip service? None of the Congressional leaders of either party stopped Sen. Reid’s railroading of the Western Shoshone claims payout, although they could have delayed it with a word to consider the serious objections raised by the NCAI, among others. Instead Reid was an honored presence at the convention, appearing as a speaker and even as co-host of a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee "Celebration of the Native American Community."

Reid’s Western Shoshone bill enforced a dubious ruling by the old Indian Claims Commission, the mid-20th century effort to extinguish tribal titles. Sen. Daschle’s Lakota constituents should be asking if it will serve as a precedent to force them to accept a pay-out of the half-billion dollars in trust for the Black Hills, so far steadfastly rejected by the tribes as a betrayal of their sacred lands. Here is an issue that would really test the extent of Indian influence.

Likewise, Rep. Kennedy introduced his compromise on the NLRB with a warning not to "over-extend" claims of tribal sovereignty. He is willing to leave tribal off-reservation enterprises under the jurisdiction of the Labor Relations Board and open to union organizing. From one viewpoint, he was merely restating the situation before the NLRB’s San Manuel ruling. But some who heard his somewhat confusing formulation wondered if he was abandoning the sovereignty of tribes without a land base or if he would compromise the status of off-reservation casinos. These are questions to be worked out in drafting the promised legislation. Even granting Rep. Kennedy’s good will, Native representatives in Washington know well that they can’t relax their vigilance even for a minute.

The attacks on tribal sovereignty are coming from both right and left, and they fly colors that can deceive the unwary. Obama fell into that trap in one of his rhetorical flourishes, proclaiming, "There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America." This rhetoric comes close to the favorite line of One Nation, the Oklahoma front for non-Indian convenience stores and gas stations that has broadened its lobbying against the tribes’ constitutionally guaranteed immunity from state taxation into an all-out campaign against sovereignty. This outfit is part of a network of local groups that have their ups and downs, but in Connecticut for now are riding high with the support of the state’s leading liberal Democrats.

Nationally, the Democratic Party clearly wants Indian votes, and it’s pleasant to be sought after so avidly. But the Native constituency has every right to step back for

a minute and ask the age-old question, "What’s in it for me?" This article can be found at
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