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Published: 2/2/2004

American Indian voters wield political punch

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - Tomorrow, American Indian voters will get a chance to demonstrate their political clout for the first time in this presidential political season.

There are an estimated 1.5 million American Indian voters nationwide compared to more than 100 million U.S. registered voters. But the concentration of American Indians in three states with presidential contests tomorrow - Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma - gives them an opportunity to wield political power, especially in a close race, political experts say.

Recognizing the opportunity to showcase and to boost their political strength this year, tribal leaders recently launched “Native Vote 2004. The effort, which includes a Web site and bumper stickers that state “I m Indian and I Vote, is designed to persuade more American Indians to vote while keeping them apprised of the latest campaign developments of interest to Indian groups.

As part of the “Native Vote effort, the National Congress of American Indians has pledged to mobilize one million American Indian voters this fall in eight states with significant American Indian populations: Michigan, Alaska, Arizona, California, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.

Although American Indians traditionally have tended to vote for Democratic candidates, that is changing, according to NCAI officials. Support for candidates generally tends to be more “issue based than partisan, said NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson.

“Although we still have a strong Democratic voice in Indian Country, there is a growing Republican constituency, she added.

Politicians of both parties, meanwhile, have readily responded to the burgeoning political power of American Indian voters, as well as the increasingly large campaign contributions from tribes newly enriched by casino and gaming receipts.

In November, six of the then-nine Democratic candidates addressed in person or on tape the annual meeting of the NCAI, the oldest and largest group representing tribal interests.

“This is the first time that we ve had such a turnout of the top candidates, Ms. Johnson said.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have openly courted the American Indian vote in other ways. For example, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Dennis Kucinich have devoted space on their Web sites for a discussion of their positions on issues of interest to American Indians, including tribal sovereignty.

In addition, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has created its own “get out the vote effort in states with large numbers of American Indians. And the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee plans to gather with tribal leaders in late February to plot political strategy for convincing American Indians to cast their votes for GOP candidates.

“We expect to have a bigger bloc of [American Indian] voters coming out on Tuesday than we ve ever had in the past because of the candidates outreach to Indian Country, Ms. Johnson said.

Nationwide, there are 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska natives, comprising about 0.9 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Another 1.6 million people reported their heritage includes American Indian or Alaska native ancestry, as well as that of one or more other races, Census figures show.

The federal government has had a roller coaster relationship with American Indian tribes. American Indians first won the right to vote 80 years ago as part of the Indian Citizenship Act passed in 1924. Then, 50 years ago, Congress attempted to “terminate a number of tribes in Florida, California, Texas, and other states.

Tribes successfully fought against the termination effort.

American Indian political clout grew after Congress passed the 1988 federal law that allows tribes to operate casinos and other gaming operations on their lands. More than 200 tribes now operate 321 casinos, and Indian gaming has become a nearly $13 billion annual business, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Political contributions to federal campaigns from American Indian gaming interests have risen from $1,750 in the 1990 election to $1.8 million in the first nine months of 2003, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission figures by the Center for Responsive Politics.

In this year s election, American Indians are aiming to make a political difference, said NCAI President Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation of North Dakota. Among the key issues are a push to solidify tribal sovereignty, better funding for Indian health care and education, and an equitable solution to the decade-old fight over tribal funds held in trust by the federal government.

“In November, we will stand up in force to support those Republican, Democratic, and Independent leaders who have honored this nation s commitments to tribes and to send home those leaders who have disregarded us, Mr. Hall said.



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