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Around the Campfire

Indians in politics

My friend told me in 1983 that Indians would never do any good in politics. ''The white man's politics is not for us,'' he told me in Tulsa, Okla. ''Indians are never going to get into this game.''

We were at a regional meeting of the Democratic Party, and he had just come out of curiosity. Earlier that year I had gotten involved for the first time in politics. I eventually ran for the leadership of the party in Wagoner County along with two friends. All three of us won - and had to fight the people we beat all the way to the state level. But we won.

Ada Deer had organized a Democratic delegation at the national convention three years before, which I think was the first time Indians had ever tried such a thing. She, I, Roger Jourdain and some other folk organized Native Americans for Mondale the same year, and definitely helped him get the nomination.

Deer later helped Bill Clinton and served as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs in Clinton's first term. Kevin Gover and Kate Stetson organized an Indian support group for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Kevin ended up serving as assistant secretary for Indian Affairs for the second Clinton term.

There are now some 19 Indians in state legislatures, I am told. Back in 1983, there was only a handful. And there are Indian sheriffs, Indian county commissioners, school board members and other local elected officials. Mark Maryboy has served as a commissioner in San Juan County, Utah, since 1986.

Mary Kim Titla is running for Congress from Arizona, and has an excellent chance of winning. She was a TV news reporter for more than a dozen years and is well-known in the district.

In the meantime, Indians have helped to put several important people in office. We helped put Ben Nighthorse Campbell in office in 1986 when he ran for Congress. He did not get much help from Indian country, but at the NIEA that year we raised $3,000 for him. He also got a little help from tribes when he ran twice for the Senate successfully.

Bruce King, a three-term Democratic governor of New Mexico, would not negotiate compacts for tribal gaming. So the 19 pueblos and the Apaches led by Wendell Chino threw their support and their money to Gary Johnson, the Republican, and he won - twice.

Indians also helped the very popular Bill Richardson win two terms as governor of New Mexico. Richardson proceeded to appoint and hire more Indians to top positions than any governor in U.S. history. He hired a total of 15, as I reported seven years ago. Bill Richardson is one of the most capable politicians in the United States, and should be in the White House. He also created the first Department of Indian Affairs.

Indians helped put Stephanie Herseth into Congress in South Dakota in 2004 and 2006. She is running for a third term this year, and is a strong supporter of Indian issues.

One of the biggest issues facing Indians in politics is at-large voting. But as I discovered last year while researching my next book, there have been a large number of lawsuits that have broken down at-large voting. Even when Indians are the majority in a county or a district, at-large voting schemes can keep them from ever winning a seat.

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One of the most pernicious of such schemes was thrown out in my home county in North Carolina 33 years ago. The five towns in the county had their own school systems, and the rural areas also had one. The problem was that Indians and blacks, who mostly lived in the rural areas, got to vote on their school board. But the whites, who mostly lived in the five towns, got to vote twice - once for their own school board and once for the county board.

The Court of Appeals threw that wicked scheme out, with the result that Indians could be elected to the school board for the first time and could also be hired as superintendent. The present super, Johnny Hunt, is the third Indian who has been superintendent.

Janie Maynor Locklear and Dexter Brooks both deserve a lot of credit for breaking double voting. So does my great-uncle, John L. Godwin. All of them are deceased now, but Deck finished law school and became a judge before he died.

The Indian people of McKinley County, N.M., never had a chance to put an Indian on the school board there until 10 years ago. The National Indian Youth Council filed a lawsuit against at-large voting in the Gallup-McKinley County Schools and won. At the next election, three Indians were elected. They soon threw out the regressive superintendent, Ramon Vigil, and hired someone with more progressive views. Even though Indians made up 65 percent of the total population in the district, Ramon acted as if they did not exist.

Unfortunately, the district has still done little to stanch its huge drain of students from the schools. The dropout rate is still 65 percent, which is scandalous to me.

Only a handful of states have any state legislators who are Indian. New Mexico has six, Oklahoma for years had my friend Enoch (Kelly) Haney in the Legislature, and Alaska has several Native legislators. North Carolina has one - my friend Ronnie Sutton. Rosebud's Paul Valandra has been in the state legislature for 20 years.

We need Indian county commissioners. As Mary Maryboy found out a quarter of a century ago, the county commissioners with reservation land do little or nothing to help Indians. Roads, hospitals, schools, water, electricity and police and fire services get neglected.

We need Indian county sheriffs. Too many Indians are still being arrested under pretexts that are ridiculous, like having something hanging from their rearview mirror or having on too many clothes. There are too many DWI arrests - Driving While Indian.

But we have only begun to stick our toe in the water. We need to try to get every Indian in the nation registered to vote. We need to make sure everyone turns out in force at the polls on Election Day.

We need to support and elect Indian candidates for all positions. We need more Indians in Congress, in state legislatures, and running state departments. We need hundreds of Indians on school boards, and they need to do something to improve our terrible schools.

I still hope to see an Indian in the White House before I die.

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement organization located in Albuquerque, N.M. His latest book, ''Modern American Indian Leaders,'' was published by Mellen Press in June 2007. He welcomes your comments at Copyright (c) 2008.