SACRAMENTO, Calif. - With national elections only days away, American Indians are eagerly awaiting the results of an election that could potentially have a big impact in Indian country.
After eight years of friendly gestures regarding Indian sovereignty by the Clinton administration, California tribes say they are apprehensive about potential presidential appointments.
The primary areas of interest to Indian tribes are the Department of Interior and the United States Supreme Court, as these positions have traditionally had the greatest impact on American Indians. Tribal leaders who identify with both the major political parties feel these particular appointments are usually more reflective of the person running for office than the parties they represent.
There seems to be a feeling in Indian country that the Republican candidate George W. Bush has not taken a strong stance on tribal sovereignty. This has been heightened by rumors of noted Indian adversary Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., receiving Bush's Secretary of the Interior nod if he should lose his United States Senate election to his Democratic Party challenger Maria Cantwell.
Because of increased gestures of tribal sovereignty and fueled by gaming profits American Indian tribes are shaping up to be players in the political process. Mary Ann Andreas, chairwoman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, points out that tribes in several Midwestern and Southwestern states have the power to swing the election in those states. Though California has the largest Indian population of any state they make up a much smaller proportion of the population. Andreas said she feels California Indians have a greater potential to influence local elections rather than national.
Still Andreas said that is not an excuse for tribes to lay down in the political process. Over the last five or so years Andreas has promoted an aggressive voter registration drive at Morongo where, she says, there are around "1,000 politically active members." Andreas points out that presidential cabinet positions and Supreme Court justices must be approved by Congress. For this reason she says it is important for California Indians to vote because the congressional representatives they choose could have an impact in confirmation hearings.
This year, Morongo printed a voter information card that states the position of each candidate on American Indian issues and distributed it to their voting members.
Andreas echoes Indian concerns in general about George W. Bush as a candidate. Bush's statements from last summer when he declared state law supreme over tribal governments discourage her. She is also alarmed by rumors of Gorton ascending to the Secretary of the Interior.
"It just doesn't seem that we can trust Governor Bush," Andreas says.
In terms of Supreme Court appointees, Andreas says conservatives who would likely be chosen by the Republicans tend to vote against American Indians, particularly with land and sovereignty issues.
Though Andreas has been active recently with the Democrats she says she supported Sen. John McCain in the primaries and is supporting local Congresswoman Mary Bono, a Republican who she feels has worked well with California Indian tribes in her district.
Cabazon First Vice Chairwoman Brenda Soulliere, a Republican, says she is conflicted over the coming election. While she said she feels Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore would be better for Indian country, she feels Bush would be better for the country.
Soulliere says the matter is complicated by what she feels would be detrimental liberal policies toward Indian business. She feels Indian tribes as residents of the United States would be dragged down by Gore's policies but is "extremely concerned" about rumors regarding Gorton.
Sen. John McCain is the person Soulliere would most like to see as Secretary of the Interior, but she said this is not likely because of his work in the Senate. Like Andreas, Soulliere supported McCain in the primaries and says that most Republican American Indians did likewise. She says support for Bush among American Indian Republicans is not very strong.
As for the Supreme Court, Soulliere said she agrees with Andreas, to a point. She admits that some conservative justices have pursued anti-Indian policies but says it depends on the type of conservatives one is speaking about.
"On Indian issues some conservatives (justices) look at the constitutional perspective and see that tribes have a right to sovereignty, but others see only gaming and write us off as heathens," Soulliere says.
Outside of Gorton, neither Soulliere nor Andreas would speculate on potential Supreme Court nominees or Secretary of the Interior candidates.
Though people in recent elections have likened the two major parties as the choice between Coke and Pepsi - in other words not much substantial difference - San Francisco-based tribal attorney George Forman disagrees.
He says there is a "night and day" difference between potential appointments made by the candidates. Forman lists several issues affecting Indian country that would be handled differently by each candidate's appointees. Among the major issues are land into trust issues and Native rights versus economic exploiters.
Forman specifically points to differences in opinions expressed by candidates regarding a plan to open up the Alaska Arctic Wilderness to oil exploration and drilling. Bush has said he is for it and Gore against. Alaska Natives use the area for traditional cultural practices.
Recent articles hinted that the Supreme Court will probably need to replace anywhere between two to four justices over the next presidential term. Forman points out that Bush has expressed admiration for justices Anton Scalia and Clarence Thomas who many Indians feel have been hostile to tribal interests.
Though Forman says many Republicans espouse pro-Indian views, tribes have had more problems with anti-Indian Republicans than anti-Indian Democrats.
"Basically it comes down to this. We've had eight years to view Al Gore's positions on tribal issues but Bush is an unknown quantity. This should give people some real pause."