Women and African-Americans aren’t the only demographics receiving extra attention from Democrats this year. The party has also been reaching out to Native Americans.
“In the past, Native American voters have been ignored, or thought of in the last minute,” says Laura Harris of the Comanche Tribe. “What (Democratic National Committee Chairman) Howard Dean has done is incorporate us into the process, not just for our vote, but for our participation and economic support, too. It’s an exciting time to be a Native American and take our place in the political process of the U.S.”
Harris, who serves as the executive director of the nonprofit Americans for Indian Opportunity, is one of an “unprecedented” six Native Americans appointed to the Democratic National Convention’s standing committees. She’s just one example of how the Democratic Party is recognizing Native American issues and courting Indian voters.
When Dean took his seat as chairman of the Democratic Party in February 2005, he initiated the party’s “50 State Plan,” in order to “not write off voters who we didn’t expect to win, and not take for granted voters we thought we already had,” according to Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera.
The national party is working with state parties to hire full-time staff to reach out at a state level, rather than engaging only voters in key demographics or during election years. Every state, says LaVera, now has at least three full-time party employees. And four states – Arizona, Oklahoma, Alaska and New Mexico -- have full-time Native American party organizers.
The 50 State Plan also encourages American Indians to seek office. “The Democratic Party has always said everyone deserves a place at the table,” says La Vera. “But Chairman Dean said that wasn’t enough. He said Native Americans needed a place on the ballots.”
The plan is working, he adds, noting that in 2006, a record 64 Native Americans were elected to state legislatures in 14 different states.
Democrats are also helping Native Americans financially. Last August, the party chose the Native American Bank in Denver, which is owned by 26 federally recognized Indian tribes, as the depository of $2 million in federal grant funds.
“The money provides the Native American Bank with a little bit of publicity and support for the great work they’ve been doing,” says Natalie Wyeth, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Convention Committee. “They have a long track record of working with tribal and other underprivileged communities, and helping them in start-up efforts.”
The party’s convention committee has recently begun depositing a portion of its federal grant funds in “minority and woman-owned banks” in the convention’s host city, instead of keeping it in New York or Washington, D.C., says Wyeth. In Boston in 2004, the party used OneUnited, the largest African-American bank in the U.S., and Asian American Bank, which provides financial support to small business owners and the Asian American community.
Democrats hope that by the time the funds are withdrawn -- a few months before the convention begins in late August -- their economic and political support will have encouraged Native American voters to continue supporting Democratic candidates.
Laura Harris speaks from experience when she says that the Native Americans’ role in the Democratic Party has come a long way.
She has been politically involved for most of her life, she says, and served as a Native American policy advisor in the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004. But her connection to the party goes back even further: Her father, Fred Harris (who is not Native American), served as chair of the Democratic National Committee in 1969.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a chairman--including my own father--who’s really tried to institutionalize the participation of Native Americans in the Democratic Party before. Usually we’re seen as a fringe group, or we’re looked at as an afterthought, but Native Americans make up the swing vote in many states.”
In fact, she says, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth all attribute their seats to the Native American vote.
While exceptions invariably pop up in any so-called voting bloc, Native Americans have an overwhelmingly “blue” voting history -- as much as 90 percent Democratic. A Carsey Institute analysis of the Bush-Kerry race of 2004, for example, found that while rural communities favored Bush, Indian reservations were an exception.
In a 2002 congressional race in Arizona, Republican Rick Renzi won overall, but his Democratic opponent took 72 percent of the vote in Apache County, which is 74 percent American Indian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Harris believes the party’s efforts will, indeed, get out the Native American vote this year. “We saw larger turnouts here in New Mexico at our caucus. It’s amazing to see the increased Democratic turnout all across the country, and Native Americans are part of that.”
If history is any indicator, the increase in Native voters will bode well for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.
In a blog entitled “Why Natives Should Vote for Barack Obama,” Rosebud Lakota Alfred Walking Bull writes, “Natives are born into this America to believe not just the worst in people, but to expect the bare minimum since our broken treaties with the federal government. We are bred to believe the worst in people: Black, white, Asian, Hispanic and even fellow Natives. We all are led to believe that we will betray each other in the end. Then I heard the call to believe in change from Obama and I dared to hope in a brighter future when we, as Native Peoples, can be counted and get legislation passed in Congress.”
At a rally in Albuquerque, Obama promised, if elected, to organize annual summits with tribal leaders. Obama has been endorsed by the independent newspaper Native American Times, leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the American Southwest, and Frank LaMere, an Oklahoma superdelegate and chair of the Democratic Party’s Native American Coordinating Council.
The other Native American superdelegate, Kalyn Free of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, is still undecided. Free and LaMere are two of 794 Democratic superdelegates.
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton has been endorsed by the 13 tribal leaders on her Nevada Native American Leadership Council, as well as about 40 tribal leaders and individuals, including former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah. Clinton has developed a “Native American Agenda” that addresses over a dozen tribal issues, including solar and wind energy development and increased funding for primary and higher education.
“Keep in mind these are just platforms,” says Ray Ramirez of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. “It doesn’t mean (candidates) are going to do anything, and around election time it seems like they will say anything. It always sounds good, and now we’ll just hold our breath and see if they come through with it. Most of the time they don’t, whether they’re Democrat or Republican.”
The Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, whose home state of Arizona includes over 15 Indian reservations, has a history of supporting tribal legislation, including a bill supporting the investigation of products misrepresented as American Indian-produced. He served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs from 2005 to 2007.
All three presidential candidates are co-sponsors of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which passed the Senate in late February, and all have said that improving the relationship between tribes and the U.S. government begins with an acknowledgment, in Obama’s words, of “the tragic history of a lot of the relationships between the United States of America and tribal nations.”
The author is an intern for High Country News.