By Ron Jenkins -- Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - American Indian activist Kalyn Free, a superdelegate to the Democratic National Convention from Oklahoma, has a warning for the prospective nominee of her party: Don't take the Indian vote for granted against Republican Sen. John McCain.
Free is president of the Tulsa-based INDN's List and the INDN's List Education Fund. INDN stands for Indigenous Democratic Network. Her organization has been active in electing Indian candidates to office.
She is still a little peeved over the failure of either Sen. Hillary Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama to attend the INDN's List-sponsored presidential forum, known as the ''Prez on the Rez,'' in California last August. Three Democratic candidates who eventually dropped out of the presidential race attended the event: Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.
Free said Clinton first turned down an invitation and Obama followed suit.
''I'm not going to hold a grudge, but I think it was a misstep and a slap in the face [to Indian tribes],'' Free said. ''Unfortunately, Sen. Obama did not step up to the plate, either.''
She said the campaigns have tried to smooth over the failure of the candidates to attend, but more needs to be done.
''I'm hoping the candidates will be able to meet with tribal leaders,'' she said.
''Sen. McCain has a record with Indian country. He has carried a lot of water for tribes over the years. I think it is a grave mistake for the Democratic nominee or these two candidates to think that Indian country will be there for them just because they are the Democratic nominee.''
In Oklahoma, McCain will be a heavy favorite. Even though Democrats have a majority of registered voters and a large Indian population that tends to vote Democratic as a whole, the party's presidential nominee has not carried the conservative state since 1964.
Free, however, says Indians can make a big difference in some states and tells anyone to ask Al Gore what a difference a few hundred votes can make.
Free was interviewed by The Associated Press about who she will vote for as a superdelegate to the national convention. She said she is still uncommitted and wants to hear more from the candidates about who is ''the most protective of tribal sovereignty and most respectful of Indian country.''
Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation, noted that McCain, who represents Arizona in the Senate, is a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
She said tribal leaders know that the Democratic candidates have not spent enough time discussing Indian issues, while publicly and actively courting blacks, Hispanics and Asians.
''Tribal leaders have a different standing. We are sovereign nations and there is a government-to-government relationship. The Democratic candidates vying for our support should meet with tribal leaders and hear our concerns,'' Free said.
She said many tribes have newfound wealth and will be wooed by Republicans for votes and campaign contributions.
''Republicans are reaching out to tribal leaders because of the new economic power that they wield. Tribes are playing at a different level than they were even a decade ago.''
Much of that economic power comes from gaming operations in several states, including Oklahoma, which has more than 80 Indian casinos, the most of any state.
The state's Indian population is at 8 percent and it has 38 federally recognized tribes.
Mike Miller, communications officer for the Cherokee Nation, said Oklahoma's Republican members of Congress - especially Tom Cole of the 4th District and John Sullivan of the 1st District - recognize the tribes are a strong constituency, as does Democrat Rep. Dan Boren of the 2nd District.
Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
''They have all made sure that their constituents who are Native Americans are represented well,'' he said.
''I would agree with Kalyn that Native Americans do have a choice. There are Republicans who understand the issues like tribal sovereignty and work well with the tribes.
''As far as presidential politics, I think her analysis is correct. McCain has been willing to listen to Native Americans that he represents. He forms relationships well and understands the issues of Native Americans, more than many other Republicans.''
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