Across the country, American Indian voters are waking up the politicians of
both parties. From the Southwest desert to the Florida Everglades, from the
Great Lakes and the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, and from Alaska,
the Pacific Northwest, and California to the Atlantic coast, Indian voters
are making their voices heard.
In the mid-1990s, New Mexico's American Indian voters shocked the political
establishment when they helped elect Governor Gary Johnson, a Republican,
breaking the Democrats' traditional hold on that office. Johnson's election
was fueled by frustration caused by the past Governor's refusal to work
with elected tribal leaders.
By 2000, Slade Gorton, the powerful Republican chairman of Senate Interior
Appropriations, had amassed quite a record of anti-Indian legislation.
Washington's record American Indian voter turnout turned Slade Gorton out
of office. Senator Maria Cantwell, a bright, young and dynamic executive
from the high tech computer industry turned a new page in history.
At the same time, American Indian voters across the country supported the
primary candidacy of Senator John McCain for President of the United
States. As past chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, our people
know Senator McCain as a man who is committed to the United States honor
and who has consistently worked to honor the United States' treaty
obligations to Indian nations.
In 2002, Indian country voters drove two dramatic victories. Senator Tim
Johnson from South Dakota was down by 3,000 votes as election coverage
closed for the night, but the next morning when votes from the Oglala Sioux
Reservation were counted, Johnson had won by 500 votes.
In an amazing parallel, Governor Janet Napolitano was down by a few hundred
votes as the daily papers went to print, but the next morning, she had won
by 500 votes after the Navajo Nation's voters were counted. The impact of
Indian votes could not have been more clear.
Across the country, American Indian voters have supported elected officials
who are ready to work with Indian country. American Indian support for the
House Native American Caucus makes this point very clearly. American
Indians have strongly supported both Dale Kildee, the long-time Democratic
congressman from Flint, Mich., who carries a copy of the Constitution in
his pocket to educate his fellow congressmen about the Indian Commerce
Clause, and J.D. Hayworth, one of the foremost conservative leaders in the
This year, with elections close around the country, Indian voters must turn
out. The Senate race is again tight in South Dakota, and South Dakota
voters will decide whether to return Minority Leader Tom Daschle to the
Senate for a fourth term. Senator Patty Murray, a recognized leader in
Washington, will face the well-liked Congressman Nethercutt, who is a
champion in the fight against diabetes. In Colorado, Indian voters would
clearly have supported Senator Nighthorse Campbell, yet with his
retirement, the race is wide open. And, Indian voters will provide crucial
votes in tight races in Alaska, Oklahoma, the Carolinas and Florida.
Indian voters will also play a crucial role in the presidential election. I
expect that once again, American Indians will evaluate the job the
administration has done for the nation, for our troops and for Indian
country, and we will all make our decision to vote based on what's best for
our families, our tribes and our nation.
To take care of our elders and our children and grandchildren, to provide
for our future, to protect our sovereignty, we need to continue to make our
voices heard. For all of our relatives, I encourage you all to stay active
and be sure to vote.
In the past, many politicians wrote off our people and ignored our needs
because we had a low voter turnout. Today, as our people see the
opportunity to make our voices heard, we as Indian voters are becoming a
political force. And, today, national leaders from both parties are finding
their way out to Indian country to meet with American Indian voters because
our votes count.
When we vote, they listen.
Ernest L. Stevens Jr., is chairman of the National Indian Gaming
Association (NIGA) in Washington, D. C. He is a member of the Oneida Tribe