Native Americans move ahead politically

  • Larry EchoHawk may become the first Native American elected governor.


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, As elections near, green hopes wilt.

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.

If the 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 increasing.

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.

Idaho's 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.

Two former 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 finish last.

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 won.

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 top.

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.

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 Shoshone-Bannock Tribe.

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