A seat at the policy table

 

Far from the crowds and the jumbotron cameras, a group of about 50 Native Americans met in a quiet basement room of the Denver Art Museum on Wednesday. The meeting -- entitled the "Native Nations Policy Discussion" -- was largely made up of tribal leaders and delegates.

When we came in the door, a greeter saw our press passes and grasped my hand for longer than is customary. “We need you,” she said. “We need you.”

This unusually personal reception was perhaps apt -- it soon became evident that the underlying theme of the event was the invisibility of Native Americans on the political scene. And the hope that with Obama as president, that would change. Add to this the noticeable lack of media at the event, especially compared to the media blitzes at so many other events in Denver this week.

The forum began with three speeches by old white men -- Congressman Dale Kildee, Congressman Norm Dicks and Senator Byron Dorgan -- each of whom listed their past efforts on behalf of Indian Country, in true campaign style. But once representatives of the tribes got to talking, it became clear that these gentlemen are the exception in D.C. (if what they say about themselves is true).

“We suffer from one thing more than any other group, and that is invisibility,” Keith Harper, a tribal lawyer, told the crowd. “We don’t have a seat at the policy-making table.”

He noted that Obama would have a senior White House advisor on Indian affairs, as well as a “Tribal G8 Summit.” He noted that the Democratic Party’s new platform includes a great deal more language concerning Native Americans than it did in 2004. The platform includes a “plank” on tribal sovereignty, in which it is stated, in part, that Native Americans deserve services from the federal government in exchange for the land that was taken from them.

Much of the meeting was taken up with rousing endorsements of Obama, and descriptions of his commitment to Indian Country. Not surprisingly, one of the most emphatic voices on this score was Obama’s First American Vote Director, Rosebud Sioux member Wizi Garriott.

“We’re going to turn red states blue,” he said. “The Indian vote is very very important.” With more Native delegates than ever before, this may well be the election where Indian Country finally drops its cloak of invisibility.