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A look at Barack Obama.

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WASHINGTON - Secure as the Democratic front-runner for the party's presidential nomination, Barack Obama has not conceded the Indian vote to rival Hillary Clinton and has not dodged the more difficult Indian issues - already in part fulfilling some important, though seldom aired, expectations in Indian country.

The more or less muted but persistent complaint of tribal leaders, Indian organizations and lobbyists has long been that Democrats take the Native constituency for granted, so confident of the Indian vote that they don't feel enough pressure to cast their own votes for Indian causes or fight the good fight for program funding. ''They'll vote for us anyway'' is the refrain attributed to them when the discussion comes up.

Obviously, many Democratic congressional members don't answer to that description. On the evidence so far, you can put Obama in their camp.

The June 3 Democratic primaries will be the last chance either presidential candidate has to win public ballots before the Democratic convention. They will take place in two Indian-populous states, Montana and South Dakota (a third, New Mexico, holds a Republicans-only primary). And that raises the possibility that in a close race, Indian country could put one presidential candidate over the top. If that candidate were Obama, he would become the first credible black candidate for the Oval Office in American history.

In the run-up to June 3, though, Obama hasn't played it safe or sat the fence on Indian issues. A direct engagement with intractable troubles was on display already in April, when Obama did a sit-down interview with the Montana Tribune. An exchange on the BIA has acquired added relevance since the recent resignation of Carl Artman as the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs. The move, unexplained and unexpected, has left many Indian people with heavy concerns about the agency's future. Obama said some of what several of them have not wanted to commit to the record: ''The Bureau of Indian Affairs has become sort of a backwater. It doesn't have a lot of clout in the administration. I want to put it front and center, along with other agencies, because on every indicator, Native Americans are having a much tougher time than the population at large.''

The front-running Obama has met Indian issues head-on, even where they could put him at odds with other voters.

His own allies, for instance. Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., has already taken a slap at Obama's ''campaign for change'' by accusing him, in the headline of an essay, of ''politics as usual'' for supporting a court resolution of the Cherokee freedmen issue. Watson's bill, H.R. 2824 in the House of Representatives, would penalize the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma for trying to expel its freedmen, tribal citizen descendants of slaves and free blacks who lived among the Cherokee before, during and after the Civil War. The bill has 24 co-sponsors, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Thirty-five CBC members have also threatened to oppose passage of a bill to reauthorize the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act if it doesn't cancel Cherokee funding under the bill until the tribe recognizes freedmen and their descendants as citizens.

As a member of the CBC, Obama encountered opposition from Indian country on grounds that he shared its alleged tilt against the sovereign right of tribes to determine citizenship.

Obama responded with a four-square commitment to sovereignty. He called on Congress to abandon the interventionary urges of the past as tragic failures, and to permit the Cherokee to resolve the freedmen issues in the courts.

''As it stands, the rights of Cherokee freedmen are not being abrogated because there is an injunction in place. ... I do not support efforts to undermine these legal processes and impose a congressional solution. Tribes have a right to be self-governing and we need to respect that, even if we disagree, which I do in this case. We must have restraint in asserting federal power in such circumstances.''

For good measure, Obama went on to say the Cherokee freedmen issue highlights unfulfilled treaty promises - promises he will be most concerned with as president, according to his position statement on the freedmen.

Keith Harper, chairman of Obama's Native American Advisory Council, said the statement speaks for itself and is typical of Obama on Indian country - ''The clarity of it, on a difficult issue. ... He thinks that people can understand nuance.''

But not every nuance matters. Harper said Obama doesn't agree that a gulf could develop between the civil rights dear to blacks, and the sovereign rights that are everything to tribes.

''You can always find ways to divide people. The exciting thing about Senator Obama's candidacy is that he finds ways to unite people.''

Fifty tribal leaders have endorsed Obama, Harper said, as have all Indian Democratic superdelegates who have announced how they'll vote at the Democratic National Convention.

In Montana recently, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck and the Crow Nation endorsed Obama, Fort Peck by a unanimous council vote. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Chairman James Steele had previously endorsed Obama.

In South Dakota, Obama has secured the endorsement of Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele. The Kennedy clan, including Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy - very nearly a beloved figure among elder generations of Indians in South Dakota - has campaigned for him in the state; and native son Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, is one of his close advisers.

By the time the full-tilt campaigning in the states entered the home stretch following May 20 primaries in Oregon and Kentucky, Obama and his surrogates had matched the Clinton's campaign stop for campaign stop in Indian country.