Four years ago, Navajos living in the southeast corner of Utah set out to capture county government.
A Democratic slate of five Navajos
and one Cherokee campaigned for sheriff, county clerk, county
assessor, county treasurer, county recorder and for one seat on the
San Juan County Commission. The Indian campaign, bolstered by a
voter registration drive, pitched the slogan: "It's our turn," for
Navajos living in San Juan County have long complained that they do
not get a fair share of county services.
cause was right, it was the wrong election. When the ballots were
counted, Mark Maryboy, the incumbent county commissioner, was the
only Indian to win. Back in 1986, Maryboy had become the first
Navajo elected in San Juan County, helped by voter registration
drives and U.S. Justice Department pressure to split the commission
seats into districts.
Now, across the West,
American Indian groups are finding their power
In Idaho, Larry EchoHawk has been
successful as a Democratic candidate for state representative,
county attorney and attorney general. He hopes to be the first
Indian elected governor of a state.
Indian population accounts for less than 1 percent of the
electorate - roughly the same percentage as the Indian population
nationally. If EchoHawk is elected in three weeks it will be
because of EchoHawk the candidate, not the Indian vote.
There has been much made of EchoHawk's
opposition to tribal gaming - and he is opposed by some tribal
leaders and employees of bingo halls. But EchoHawk will still sweep
precincts dominated by Indian voters.
Colorado's U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell is like EchoHawk: He
is a politician who happens to be Indian, and not an Indian
senator. Campbell's support runs statewide - and includes Indian
groups in his coalition.
In New Mexico,
coalition politics is changing because of Indian gaming. The
incumbent governor, Democrat Bruce King, received many votes from
tribes and pueblos in past elections. But this election may be
different: While King has refused to negotiate gaming compacts with
tribes, his Republican opponent has promised to support Indian
gaming because it will benefit tourism statewide.
In New Mexico, if Indians turn out in large
numbers, the betting is they will be voting Republican. In most
states, however, the Indian vote has been taken for granted,
because it has been almost always Democratic; in Arizona many
candidates look to the reservations merely to help offset the
state's Republican bent. But this year Navajo, Apache and Hopi
voters picked the party's nominee.
Phoenix mayors shared the role of favorites in the Democratic
primary; statewide polls predicted that the third candidate, Eddie
Basha, a grocer and longtime supporter of education causes, would
A week before the election the
polls predicted a victory for former Mayor Terry Goddard,
discounting the 17 percent who were undecided. The polls must not
have included many voices from Indian country. On election night,
the returns from the state's two largest counties - which include
the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas - split the vote among
the three candidates. Everyone went to bed not knowing who had
When the reservations' votes were tallied
early the next morning, they made Basha the clear winner. In Apache
County, where much of the Navajo reservation is located, Basha
swept all but one precinct, picking up nearly 70 percent of the
vote. Similar results in the other reservation counties made it
clear that the Indian vote pushed Eddie Basha over the
Basha's support should have been easy to
figure. First, Basha's cause was education, and that always sits
well with Indian voters. What's more, Eddie Basha is a well-known
grocer who brought a chain of clean, modern supermarkets to
reservation communities. Other supermarket companies had been
wooed, but none believed the small reservation communities could
support them. Basha recognized that Indian people spend money on
groceries just like their neighbors off the reservation, and that
they deserve first-rate stores with low prices. The stores make
money for the chain and serve the communities.
Will Basha forget the Navajo, Apache and Hopi voters should he win
the governor's seat in November? Not likely. Basha supported Indian
communities before he was a candidate for any office. His win in
the primary was a just reward. n
Mark Trahant is on leave as the executive news
editor of The Salt Lake Tribune. He is a former president of the
Native American Journalists Association and a member of the