Note to Arizona Sen. John McCain and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton: It's time to rethink your strategies for getting the Native vote.
The Crow Nation on May 19 raised the bar for presidential candidates seeking to win the coveted votes of American Indians. Accepting an invitation by the tribe's leaders, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama made a brief but fruitful stop at Crow Agency. There he was ceremoniously adopted by the Black Eagle family into the Whistling Water clan and given the name Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish, Crow for ''One who helps people throughout the land.'' Obama's triumphal visit was historic for presidential politics and for the thousands of Native people who witnessed the event.
In one day, the citizens of Crow Agency and their special guests helped focus international attention on indigenous rights, Native language, a devastating legacy of broken promises and the concept of the seventh generation.
Often compared to the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who campaigned in South Dakota during the 1968 primaries and became a favorite among Native voters, Obama speaks sincerely and charismatically about topics generally considered off-limits for politicians: marginalization, racial and class disparities, and tribal sovereignty. Obama announced a strong starting point for his Indian policy: his administration would include a senior adviser on Indian affairs and he would convene an annual summit of tribal leaders and federal officials. Of the highest import was his promise to restore the ''critical'' government-to-government relationship between Indian nations and the United States. ''I believe,'' he said, ''that treaty commitments are paramount law.''
Obama's willingness to reach out of the nation's - and his own - comfort zone continues to pay off handsomely for his campaign. Close races throughout Indian country are often decided by Native voters, people who no longer are satisfied with platitudes made by candidates campaigning from afar. They want the chance, however fleeting, to form a personal bond with a candidate who may one day affect their lives. Obama's Crow stop illustrated the gains that can be made when Native peoples are recognized as threads in the fabric of the United States. Many in the crowd voiced a common sentiment: It's nice to be finally noticed. Obama did more than notice. A few days prior, he took part in a less-publicized gathering in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he was honored by tribal leaders with a buffalo robe. He left Apsaalooke Veterans Park in Montana committed to improving relations between tribes and the White House, since, as he put it, he is now ''family.''
In the race for the Democratic nomination, both Obama and Clinton have made strong cases in Indian country. But there has been a marked difference in their actions leading up to the Montana and South Dakota primaries. Clinton, in solid standing with Native voters since her days as first lady, delegated former President Bill Clinton to Pine Ridge on her behalf. While he is respected and charismatic, suggested A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association, a more personal outreach effort might help Clinton. ''His administration did well for Native American people, but he's not Hillary.'' Clinton participated in a conference call with Indian media to publicize her Native policy. She was resolute about her support for improving Indian health and education, but still, seemed distant and out of reach in comparison to her rival's aggressive approach.
Obama's efforts to appeal to Native voters are praiseworthy, but continuity is crucial too. Native peoples in the U.S. are especially wary of promises made during negotiation. Though, as the son of a single mother and raised by his grandmother, Obama often expresses his appreciation of family bonds and did so before the Indian people at Crow: ''Since now I'm a member of the family,'' he said, ''I won't break my commitment to my own brothers and my own sisters.''