WASHINGTON - The Democratic Party has embarked on a strong effort to encourage American Indians to use their votes as a means to make change and get involved in the federal and state political structure.
In states that have a significant American Indian population where senate races will be on the ballots in 2004, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Oklahoma and Washington, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee through its Native Vote 2004 initiative pledges to infuse funds and education to the American Indian populations.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has first-hand experience of the impact of the American Indian vote. He was re-elected to the Senate in 2002 by 528 votes, largely due to the voter turnout on the nine reservations in the state, he said.
Sen. Johnson is the co-chairman of the DSCC Native Vote 2004, along with Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
"The more Native Americans turn out to vote, the more accountable elected officials will have to be to Native American issues. Too many elected officials are virtually indifferent to questions of tribal sovereignty, treaty and trust obligations because they don't fear or respect the Native vote.
"They don't think the Native population will turn out in any significant numbers. We have to change that," Sen. Johnson said.
In South Dakota, the Republican Party has now joined the efforts to court the American Indian vote by showing up at pow wows with free ice water and ice cream. State officials have also been more attentive to the issues facing American Indians in South Dakota and in Washington state, where Marie Cantwell, D-Wash. defeated the incumbent Republican Senator Slade Gorton. The American Indian vote and campaign participation is given ample credit for that campaign's outcome.
The DSCC Native Vote 2004 will not deal with issues surrounding Indian country, but will be more involved in setting up organizations that will educate the American Indian population about the vote and helping people get to the polls.
Sen. Johnson made reference, during a phone press conference, to the fact that more sheriffs and school board members from the American Indian community were elected because of the turnout at the polls in 2002.
The DSCC spent $1 million in the last election cycle, but officials could not speculate how much would be available this next cycle. It all depends on open fundraising and contacts with tribes that have funds available, Sen. Johnson said.
Congressman Brad Johnson, D-Okla. a member of the Cherokee Nation, is a candidate for the Senate in 2004. "In Oklahoma there is a sizeable Indian population that could have a tremendous impact in determining who is sent both to the state capital and to Washington, D.C.
"So many issues are being decided. I think getting people registered, getting them to vote, encouraged to be informed about which candidates are supporting their issues. It's going to make leaders in both parties recognize that the first meeting you should have is with the tribal government, with the tribal chief," Carson said.
In Alaska, where former Gov. Tony Knowles is a candidate for the Senate the Alaska Native population is 15.6 percent. In Oklahoma, Rep. Carson said that 9.9 percent of the population is American Indian and in South Dakota, American Indians make up 8.3 percent of the population.
"Across our country we see that when Native people get involved they stay involved in the decisions that effect them from education to health care - in my state salmon recovery and important environmental issues," said Sen. Patty Murry, D-Wash.
"It's not just getting people to vote on a specific day, it's about tribal members having a say in where the country is going. They contribute in many ways to our economy, as part of our military efforts around the world today and important contributions by many tribal members."
Efforts at getting out the American Indian vote are also under way through various national organizations and specifically designated voter campaign drives on the local and national levels. DSCC Native Vote 2004 will not become part of those efforts, but will work in parallel with them, Sen. Johnson said. Because is it a politically-based effort the Native Vote 2004 will remain independent of other efforts but will carry the Democratic message.
Sen. Johnson said that efforts in South Dakota, which were successful, will be improved on for other states. The past efforts created a cadre of people, campaign managers and political operatives that never existed before and who became sophisticated. That will be the goal in other states.
Funds from the DSCC Native Vote 2004 will not go to the candidates, but to the people who are on the ground organizing and educating on the campaign issues.
"With greater emphasis on the vote and participation in the process on the state and federal levels American Indians can effectively impact their lives in positive ways, DSCC Native Vote 2004 asserts.
"Alaska's Native peoples play a major role in Alaska today: in our economy, our culture, and our spirit," said former Gov. Knowles, D-Alaska.
"As Governor, I worked closely with Alaska tribal leaders to promote jobs, education, and health care. Protection for subsistence hunting and fishing rights and forging government-to-government relations with tribes were hallmarks of my Administration. Native Vote 2004 is a critical part of empowering the political strength of America's Native peoples."