American Indians – long a forgotten and ignored constituency in U.S. politics – are increasingly getting themselves involved in the system, saying the stakes are too high this election season to sit on the sidelines waiting to be courted.
The activism is everywhere, from large political donations to the presidential candidates to participation in the major American political parties, to grassroots advocacy for Native voter rights and the perennial push to get more politicos from both sides of the aisle ready to take action on tribal and Indian issues once elected.
Nowhere was the was involvement clearer than at this year’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., where a record 161 Native delegates cast their votes in support of President Barack Obama’s nomination. Throughout the three-day convention, many Indians canvassed the hall, making sure politicians were aware of their presence and their need for enhanced representation in Washington. They met with important Democratic political players, including U.S. Sen. James Inouye, D-Hawaii, Jill Biden, and top members of the Obama administration. Denise Juneau, a citizen of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes, delivered an impassioned speech on the convention floor, focused on Indian education.
“I found it so empowering to see Native faces and signs in the crowd, tribal issues being presented and discussed, and tribes finally being addressed as governments,” said Theresa Sheldon, a Native get-out-the vote organizer and Tulalip tribal citizen from Washington state. A big push from Indians at the convention focused on forming a Native American Caucus that would be recognized in the greater structure of the organization, and thus have more sway in focusing the party’s attention on Indian issues. Indians are also advising the Republican Party and Mitt Romney’s campaign on tribal sovereignty, self-determination, and economic development.
In 2012, tribal citizens are making their presence known far beyond issue advocacy and get-out-the vote activities. They’re also contributing to the major federal and state candidates and parties in record numbers. Recent data indicates that tribes have donated at least $2.5 million to Obama’s reelection campaign through the end of July, and about $750,000 to Romney. Four tribes donated a total of $400,000 to the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and many more are contributing to state and local elections.
Gyasi Ross, a lawyer with the Crowell law firm and an organizer with the Obama campaign in 2008, said that Native Americans have a major reason to be engaged in American politics, since they are the citizens of sovereign nations with strong political interests, and, like it or not, they have a built-in relationship with the American government.
“On average, Native people are aware of the political process at a higher [rate] than any other ethnic group in the nation, with the exception of perhaps Jews,” said Ross, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation. “The reason? Similar to Jews in relationship to Israel, Native people understand that, as a result of our unique political relationship with the United States government, many of our basic needs are dependent upon the federal-tribal relationship.”
John Tahsuda, a lobbyist with the Navigators Global and an adviser to the Romney campaign on Indian issues, noted that Indians have a long history of some participation in the American political system, but he doubts that it ever truly impacted a presidential election until 2008, when Obama capitalized on Indian political support to maintain a momentum in the primary race against Hillary Clinton and later against John McCain. He believes that Indian turnout helped the president greatly in some key states—something that many candidates are depending on in some states this year—Montana, the Dakotas, Arizona and New Mexico among them. He’d like Indians to put Romney over the edge this time around.
On the flip side, Ross cautioned that Native political awareness does not always equal involvement, since many Indians choose not to participate, like many poor and historically overlooked groups, because of a feeling that their votes are not as meaningful as a wealthy or white person’s vote. Some Indians are taking on activist roles in that area, such as several tribal citizens from Montana, who are currently suing the state because they say not enough has been done this year to open satellite offices for early voting on some reservations. The National Congress of American Indians and some tribes are also working to get out the vote, saying that more votes translate to more clout on Capitol Hill.
Some Indians may also be disappointed that politicos don’t always seem to pay enough attention back in return. Obama, for instance, visited the Crow tribe to campaign in 2008, but this year has not travelled to any Indian reservations—a fact that disappoints many Native Americans. And many economic challenges remain on many poverty-stricken reservations, despite some movement by the Obama administration to make things better.
“I think it remains to be seen whether participation will reach the levels it reached in 2008,” said Tahsuda, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe. “Candidate Obama really reached out and created voter excitement among Native Americans that year. I have a feeling that same level of enthusiasm is not being reached this year, but we won’t know until Election Day.”
Added Ross: “President Obama has shown an unprecedented interest and commitment to tribes— he’s been the best president, in his first four years, that Native people have ever seen. Yet, Native people have discovered that even Obama’s interest and commitment is no panacea for the poverty and many social ills within our community. There is no quick fix.”
Another concern that comes with the increased Indian attention to American politics is whether Indians are paying enough attention to strengthening their own systems of government back home on the reservations. Tribes are sovereign governments, after all, and they need strong leaders and policies in place to be able to strengthen their communities and to foster relationships beyond the tribes with local, state and federal governments.
Tahsuda said that a lot of Native Americans still do not take the interest they should in their own political processes. “Traditionally, we often express disapproval by not participating, which translates into low voter turnout,” he said.
Ross, meanwhile, doesn’t think that Indian participation in state and federal elections takes away from tribal elections. “Tribal elections have an energy all their own—it’s 100 percent an indigenous phenomenon that has a small-town, ‘Americana’ vibrancy mixed with Native aggression and tribalism,” he said. “It’s fun. On the other hand, our increasing participation in mainstream elections is also a signal of how globalism has affected our own insular Native communities—we understand that we’re not insulated anymore and have no choice but to try to best affect those outside elections because those outside elections affect us powerfully.”
Rob Capriccioso is the Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief for Indian Country Today Media Network. He is a citizen of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.