First Americans last with presidential hopefuls

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Tribal leaders gathered here April 6 and 7 for what they believed would be a historical event, a chance for serious dialogue with presidential candidates and tribes from other regions on issues important in Indian country.

Many wanted to ask the candidates exactly what their policy was on Native American issues. With abundant questions about sovereignty, many said they wanted to ask Texas Gov. George W. Bush exactly what he meant by states rights over tribes.

&quit;All I know is that if Bush gets in, our sovereignty is gone," Dean Bridges from Texas' American Indian Chamber of Commerce told other leaders. Others at his table agreed. The fact Bush hadn't appeared cemented that fear for many.

Others hoped Vice-President Al Gore would listen to specific questions regarding his policy. Despite his recent editorial in Indian Country Today, Gore also was a no-show.

Participants found First Americans were last Americans in the eyes of the candidates. Host for the Tribal Leaders Summit and Presidential Candidates Forum was the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of New Mexico which invited all presidential candidates. Not one attended. None even sent representatives from his campaign offices.

Only Ralph Nader participated, via a telecom link, taking questions and comments with CBS correspondent Hattie Kauffman serving as moderator.

Chamber President Fidel Moreno explained the sessions were organized because for &quit;the past 270 years, Indian tribes have had to travel to Washington ? to be heard. We still do that, at our own expense and time. We wanted to provide a forum to be in neutral territory and be able to engage in real fruitful dialogue with each other and with the candidates.

&quit;We need to look clearly at the politics of the process."

Moreno said the candidates' offices cited scheduling conflicts even though the AICC began issuing invitations several months ago.

&quit;They kept us in a holding pattern and told us that they wanted a 72-hour window in which they could change their minds. A lot of them wanted to know why we didn't have it on a reservation somewhere. One of the reasons we didn't have this on a tribal reservation was because of the media coverage. These politicians are very smart about that coverage. We think this is very important and we support our tribal governments but we also support our tribal populations who are not on the reservation too."

Tribal leaders and representatives spent the summit discussing regional and national concerns, working with urban leaders to find solutions to common problems.

East Coast representatives identified health care as the biggest concern for Native people in their region, along with education, inadequate funding for housing and sovereignty issues.

Border crossing was the Number One problem seen by tribal officials in the Southwest. Tribes with reservations adjacent to the Mexican report Border Patrol regulations are a nightmare when family members try to cross for ceremonies or visit family. Tribal benefits for those living south of the border can be a problem and the amount of documentation required for tribal members to become citizens of the United States is at issue.

In the Northwest, tribes are trying to shift from dependence and question who protects tribal rights.

Representatives from the Southern Plains raised concerns over economic development, health care and education. Those in the Northern Plains are battling sovereignty issues and health concerns as well as housing shortages.

For urban Indians, health care and education and lack of sovereignty were deemed most important. They said they should have access to the Indian Health Service and the rights afforded those on the reservation.

Emmett Francis, assistant for Indian affairs for the Albuquerque mayor, said nearly 35,000 individuals from 200 tribes live in the city. That sheer number makes keeping Indian Health Hospitals open in urban areas like Albuquerque, a priority, he said.

Throughout group discussions, it was noted that one element missing from the summit, other than candidates, was conflict. An anticipated split between tribal governments and urban Indians failed to materialize. Participants said they left with a new understanding of the problems which face both tribes and urban Indian populations and possible solutions.

Facing issues as complex as regulations on both the Canadian and Mexican borders and urban Indian health care, participants said they feared it would be difficult to get their message across since candidates failed to take part. They vowed to hold monthly summits throughout the United States and to invite the candidates to each and everyone of them.

&quit;Sooner or later they are going to have to listen and to attend." Moreno said.

Candidates will be asked to commit to strengthen the executive order on government-to-government coordination with consultation before decisions affecting American Indians are made and to fund economic development on reservations.

Participants want the United States to negotiate a treaty with Mexico on border crossing and to require agencies to use and fund tribal liaisons within government agencies.

They want candidates to encourage education about the treaties, constitutions and sovereignty issues for government officials and the general public. They stressed that candidates must serve as examples to other government officials by visiting reservations and urban Indian centers.

Many tribal representatives went home determined to organize chapters of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce to give Native American business owners a united and strong voice in the political process.

During a luncheon speech, Kauffman, the only Native national correspondent, listened to the concerns of tribal leaders and recalled her own childhood on the reservation.

She reminded the group, &quit;The story here isn't that the candidates didn't show up. The story is that you did."