If the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates were as one-dimensional as the popular media portray, American Indians might be hard-pressed to decide which candidate best reflects the values of Indian country. Is it Hillary Clinton, an experienced woman leader? Or maybe it is Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose brown skin underscores each audacious speech on paradigm change. John Edwards sheds light on poverty and inequality. The front-runners are evident; their actions in improving the federal-tribal relationship are not. At least their campaign materials boast a basic knowledge of the significance of tribal sovereignty, an improvement from 2004 when George W. Bush famously stumbled through a simple question regarding its meaning.
Whether these candidates believe tribal sovereignty is good for Americans is another matter altogether. As they begin to develop Indian policy proposals, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's strong record on government-to-government relations with tribal nations stands as a beacon. Shortly after declaring his candidacy, Richardson told Indian Country Today that if elected president, he would install a cabinet-level secretary of Indian Affairs. Given his record, this is less lip service than intention. In 2005 he appointed Jemez Pueblo native Benny Shendo Jr. as New Mexico's first secretary of Indian Affairs. It is the only state in the country that has a cabinet secretary and a department of Indian Affairs. Spoken commitment followed by action is the key to winning the increasingly critical Native vote.
Obama has begun courting the Native vote, circulating a well-versed letter to tribal leaders stating his support for tribal nations. Referring to his somewhat limited legislative record on Indian issues, Obama boldly concluded, ''Only with the benefit of your ideas will we usher in a new era of federal Indian policy - an era of tribal nation-building when tribes, not bureaucrats, determine how to best govern themselves.'' It is campaign rhetoric for sure, but coming from the sincere and charismatic Obama, the words could not be more welcome. He might share aspects of his ''foundational policy for First Americans'' with Indian country through its various media to ensure his bold ideas actually reach Native voters, as news cameras are unlikely to follow him (or any candidate) out to the rez.
Taking notice of the strategic advantage of campaigning in Indian country - securing a critical swing vote - Clinton's campaign has formed the Nevada Native American Leadership Council, a group of Nevada tribal leaders united in support of the New York senator's bid for the presidency. The council will serve as an advisory body in Nevada's Indian areas. According to the release, the council will ''play an active role in reaching out and organizing Native American communities.'' Several Indian leaders from throughout Nevada comprise the council. This is a wonderful development for Clinton's campaign and Indian tribes in Nevada; but in New York, where she has served as junior senator since 2000, her record shows little discernable support among tribes. She is, along with Obama, a co-sponsor of a bill to amend the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.
Edwards may have the advantage of experience over his first- and second-place rivals. The North Carolina senior senator joined fellow Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., in representing the Lumbee Tribe in its quest for federal recognition. While his opponent for the 2004 Democratic nomination, John Kerry, avoided the issue, Edwards endorsed Indian gaming and expressed support for revenue sharing conflict resolution based on respect and consultation. His national economic plan included investing in Indian country and increasing the funding for community development financial institutions, a program supported by the Department of the Treasury to channel micro-loans to reservations. Edwards would be wise to build upon his past policy proposals for Indian country in order to gain footing in states with small but key Indian constituencies.
It is important to note that while the leading candidates are reaching out to Indian country as campaign strategy, they will not appear at what may be the only forum focused solely on Indian issues. Prez on the Rez, an event sponsored by the Indigenous Democratic Network (INDN's List), is slated for Aug. 23 at the Morongo reservation in southern California. The forum places Democratic candidates squarely before Indian people to address their concerns. It is the first such forum to be held in Indian country, and leaders of all federally recognized tribes have been invited. The chance afforded to nearly every other group in America has finally materialized for Indian people. Not surprisingly, Richardson was the first to accept the invitation. Unfortunately, the ''Big Three'' won't attend due to scheduling conflicts. It is too bad. Each could benefit from the example set by Richardson, and by experiencing firsthand the strength of Indian leadership and the challenges they face in their communities.