Power to the first people

by Rebecca Ford

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.

The phones are down in Sonny Weahkee's cluttered office on a quiet street near the University of New Mexico. But Weahkee, a Navajo, Cochiti and Zuni Pueblo Indian with a dark ponytail and a patient, gentle way of speaking, is still working on this late July day. As the executive director of the nonprofit Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality (SAGE) Council, he has his hands full mobilizing New Mexico's sizeable Native American population to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

Other Native American activist groups, such as the Washington, D.C.-based National Congress of American Indians and the Oklahoma-based Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN's List, have mounted similar efforts across the country, working to raise awareness among candidates and voters of the need for better-funded Native healthcare and education. "If we stand together and vote together on whatever issue, we can start to gain some momentum and start turning people's heads," Weahkee says.

And if they go to the polls, Native Americans could easily swing some Western battleground states -- especially New Mexico, where they represent nearly 6 percent of registered voters.

Presidential races in New Mexico are often close. In 2000, Al Gore won the state by only 366 votes, and in 2004, George W. Bush won by little more than 6,000.

But registering and mobilizing the state's Native Americans presents a unique challenge. In 2004, for example, Native American voter turnout was about 5 percent lower than overall voter turnout. "These are people who, like myself, are traditionally disengaged, disenfranchised, and have a lot of reason for not necessarily paying very close attention to the political and electoral process," says Amber Carillo, a member of the SAGE Council who works for the All Indian Pueblo Council, a group of 19 Pueblo governors. Many Native Americans distrust the U.S. government and believe that participating in it means sacrificing tribal sovereignty and their own way of life. And because many live in remote locations in the sprawling rural parts of the state, without Internet, phones or even electricity, it is hard to reach them.

To overcome these difficulties, SAGE embarked on an aggressive voter education campaign in the weeks before the election. Relying on contact information from the state's registered voter list  -- along with a membership list from the nonprofit's own Native American Voters Alliance (NAVA), a network of 6,700 rural and urban New Mexico Native Americans -- the SAGE Council has deployed more than 30 volunteers to operate phone banks. It's also enlisted dozens of others to drive the back roads and knock on doors in areas with large Indian populations -- including parts of Albuquerque and McKinley, Rio Arriba and San Juan counties. In Albuquerque, SAGE has posted members at the Albuquerque Indian Center and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center to recruit voters.

In Santa Fe this August, NAVA gathered more than 50 Native American leaders from across the state to hear about strategies for running for office, engaging voters and building a Native American agenda. Those leaders then took the message back to the people in their own tribes and reservations.

Both presidential candidates have fought to benefit from such efforts.

In January, Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama opened an election headquarters in Shiprock, the largest town on the Navajo Reservation, and in February, he met with a Navajo delegation in Santa Fe. Before the primary, an Obama spokesperson held a conference on a local radio station, which was translated into Navajo. And in September, Obama met with more than 100 Native American leaders at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

Obama has promised to create a position for a Native American staff advisor in the White House. He also plans to establish an annual Tribal Summit, where tribal leaders can meet with the president's team to establish a national Indian policy agenda.

While the Native vote is more likely to go Democratic -- about 85 percent of New Mexico's voting Native Americans are registered Democrats, for example -- Republican candidate Sen. John McCain enjoys a good rapport with tribes in his home state of Arizona and throughout the West. As former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, he has a connection with Native Americans that past Republican candidates have lacked. McCain's experience in the military has also won him support among Native American veterans.

Both presidential candidates have released Native American policies supporting tribal sovereignty and improvements to the education system on reservations, and both have met privately with tribal leaders across the country.

Regardless of who wins, says INDN's List president Kalyn Free, with Native American voters in a position to affect election outcomes in several Western states, "We believe that 2008 can be the year of the Indian."

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