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Campaign 2004 Kickoff: Indian vote could be 'Sleeping Giant' of American politics

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QUINNIPIAC, Conn. - Looming at 90 degrees to the main road here, a small mountain, more of a hill really, fills the horizon with the profile of a large head, a torso and stretched out legs. Local tradition says the Quinnipiac Indians who once occupied this region north of New Haven called the range the "Sleeping Giant" and predicted that he would some day awaken.

This election year could be the start of an era in which the Indian vote emerges as the sleeping giant of American politics. Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination are busy courting Indian votes, concentrated in a crucial "second tier" of primary states which vote Feb. 3. Indian candidates are emerging, and winning, in increasing numbers at state and national levels.

The outlines of crucial alliances with other voting blocs are beginning to emerge. Even though the most dramatic episode to date, tribal financial support for the Hispanic lieutenant governor in the California recall election was insufficient to place a knowledgeable ally in Sacramento, the possibilities have been demonstrated. Even broader coalitions exist in a vision that could transform the country's politics.

In sharp contrast to the apathy of previous years, and even the principled refusal of some activists to participate in what they consider an alien system, Indian voters have already made a highly visible mark in recent elections. The 2000 election defeat of U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., considered an "Indian fighter" by Northwest tribes, was followed in 2002 by the narrow re-election of U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., in a cliff-hanger decided by the returns from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In the 2004 presidential race, Indian votes in the Feb. 3 primary states of Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico could well determine which candidates will go on to contend for the Democratic nomination. Several contenders have issued detailed position papers on "Native American issues" and given high visibility to their Indian supporters. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, for instance, offers a "Native American" heading on his Web site with a seven-point paper headed "An Obligation to the First Americans/Fostering Tribal Sovereignty, Furthering Self-Determination."

He boasts of support from the prominent Cherokee tribal leader Wilma Mankiller and activist LaDonna Harris.

Not to be outdone, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. has issued an eight-point agenda "Ensuring Tribal Sovereignty and Working to Improve the Lives of Native Americans." Other candidates such as Gen. Wesley Clark and long-shot U.S. Rep Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, have sought out Indian audiences. Even U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who has introduced legislation that many tribal leaders consider anti-Indian, talks of building a Hispanic-Native American coalition of supporters in his southwest campaign.

Whether these efforts survive the primary season, other factors ensure that Indian influence will continue to grow. One, of course, is the growing financial clout of a few tribes with profitable casinos. Some of these, such as the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut, counterbalance the overwhelming Indian preference for voting Democrat by contributing generously to Republicans. According to a study during the last presidential election, Indian political money, once largely channeled to Democrats, now flows roughly evenly to both parties.

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The Mashantuckets, in their turn, sent several delegates to the Republican national convention in 2000. One, the tribe's current Chief Operating Officer John Guevremont, helped shape the party's plank on Indian issues, inserting strong support for tribal sovereignty.

This financial influence became an issue in the 2003 California recall election when several tribes contributed millions to the campaign of Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to step in if Gov. Gray Davis was ousted. Tribal money also went to State Sen. Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican, who split party support for the celebrity front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This strategy in retrospect looked like a bad idea when Schwarzenegger won handily, running up some of his largest margins in areas heavy with Indian casinos. But it laid possibly lasting ground-work for a coalition between money-rich but under-populated tribes and the numerous and growing Hispanic vote. This coalition would reflect an even deeper sympathy, since Mexican-Americans are overwhelmingly indigenous in origin and a growing cultural movement is emphasizing a return to their Indian heritage.

The coalition will have another test this year in the run of Mary Ann Andreas, a tribal council member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, for a state Senate seat in southeastern California, against a female Hispanic Republican incumbent.

But Hispanics are not the only potential allies. In Connecticut, both federal and state-recognized tribes are finding friends among the state's black politicians and organizations. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has endorsed the federal recognition quest of the Golden Hill Paugussetts, whose ancestors, like those of other state tribes, inter-married with black freedmen as long ago as the Revolutionary period. A large proportion of African-Americans, perhaps as many as 60 percent, proudly claim Indian descent.

So in fact do millions of white Americans, possibly up to 40 million. According to one Census Bureau study, issued even before multi-racial identification became an accepted category, if everyone who claimed one Indian grandparent were counted as American Indian, it would become the sixth largest ethnic group in the country.

The question becomes how and whether this ethnic identification could be mobilized in support of tribal issues, such as the defense of sovereignty against its many attackers. Political support currently is strong, and far out of proportion to the population of enrolled tribal members, but the Indian side does not automatically win in Congress, as the recent vote on the Interior Department riders demonstrated. Now that Indian interests have become substantial enough to draw the envy of greedy neighbors, the effort to build political strength is bound to become a top priority.

Tribes might well find that in order to keep their gains they will have to awaken their electoral sleeping giant.