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Forgotten Once More? Presidential Candidates Yet to Campaign in Indian Country

By this time in the 2008 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama was an adopted member of the Crow Nation of Montana, smiling and hugging his new parents, Sonny and Mary Black Eagle. Jodi Gillette, of the Standing Rock Sioux, Wizipan Garriott, of the Rosebud Sioux, and other Natives were out canvassing for him all around Indian country. A real Native network had taken shape, and many, including Gillette and Garriott, were later rewarded with jobs in the administration. Obama’s rival, John McCain, former chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, had reached out to tribal leaders, asking them not to blindly vote for the Democrat. When McCain picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, his camp eagerly reminded Indian voters that her husband, Todd, and her children were of Alaska Native descent.

All the right words were flowing. “I know what it’s like to not always have been respected or to have been ignored and I know what it’s like to struggle and that's how I think many of you understand what's happened here on the reservation,” then-Senator Obama told hundreds of Crow citizens in a speech on their reservation on May 19, 2008. “A lot of times you have been forgotten, just like African Americans have been forgotten, or other groups in this country have been forgotten.” He and his team vowed that every vote in Indian country mattered, and if they voted for him, he would bring them change they could believe in.

In 2012, Native Americans across the land are wondering where on Earth—or in America, at least—the outreach has been from the presidential campaigns. For an election that is forecasted to be quite close—closer by the day, according to the most recent polls—in battleground states where Native populations, though comparatively small, could tip the scale. “This will probably be a very close election, and neither campaign should ignore any group of voters, especially one that is reliably supportive,” says Daniel McCool, a political science professor at the University of Utah and co-author of the 2007 book Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.

Obama realized the opportunity early on in 2008, but Indian votes appear to be less important to him this time around. As of June 14, his Chicago camp hadn’t formally named an official Native vote coordinator or hierarchy, while operations to court African-American, Latino, Asian, Jewish, gay, and women voters were already established. His campaign website in 2008 had many Native blog posts and tribal endorsements. This year, nothing yet.

That said, Obama has been hustling for Indian dollars like no other presidential candidate in history. In January, Indian Country Today Media Networkreported that 70 tribal donors had attended a private meet-and-greet with the president, where the minimum donation started at $15,000, and many gave $35,800, the maximum allowed by law. A campaign official said at the time that Vice President Joe Biden had hosted a similar event with Natives in October 2011. USA Todayreported in mid-May that tribal governments had so far donated more than $1 million to his campaign and his joint fundraising efforts with the Democratic National Committee, while they gave only $264,000 to him in 2008.

The invitation to the winter event, which Obama attended for less than 30 minutes, billed the affair as co-hosted by the Native American Leadership Committee. But no one on the Obama campaign could name the members of that committee. In the days since, it has become clear that Keith Harper, a Cherokee lawyer with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, is the main Obama campaign Native finance go-to man. He has been doing the job for months, even as he worked as a lawyer representing Indian interests in the famous $3.4 billion Cobell settlement, which was announced by the administration in December 2009, soon after Harper served on the Obama transition team. The overlap and inherent conflicts there—advocating for both the Indian interests involved in the case, as well as for the Obama administration and its campaign interests—are obvious. In an e-mail exchange with ICTMN in February, Harper insisted that no tribal lobbyists attended the winter fundraiser, despite the fact that he had been registered as a tribal lobbyist in 2008, helped coordinate the event and was seen attending at least some portions of it. “It is no secret that I am a supporter of President Obama and I will do anything within my (albeit limited) power to help his re-election,” Harper e-mailed. “Why? I believe there is no serious argument that President Obama is the most pro-tribal President in the history of the U.S. and that includes President Nixon.”

Indeed, Obama has a strong record to campaign on in Indian country, including the passage of the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act as part of his larger healthcare legislation in 2010, several billion dollars in trust settlement announcements, the support for and passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act, and three major annual White House meetings with tribal leaders to date. And that just makes the lack of outreach to Native voters, the tribal citizens, all the more perplexing.

“In 2008 Obama had almost no track record [in Indian country] and was running against John McCain, who has been—especially among post-Nixon Republicans—a strong ally of tribal communities,” says Tol Foster, a professor of Native literature at Marquette University. “For his years of service and record of concrete accomplishments, not to mention his martial honors in war, I think many elders were predisposed to McCain in states that could have shifted the election, such as New Mexico.” So maybe that’s why Obama feels he doesn’t need to be chasing Indian votes this time around. And maybe that makes sense, but in what promises to be a close election, it still seems risky, especially given that the Obama team has successfully danced with Natives before—and won.

Blackfeet Nation citizen Gyasi Ross, who worked for the Obama campaign in Montana in 2008, argues that the president has indeed reached out to Natives by staying in constant contact with tribal leaders. “The Obama campaign has engaged in the most effective form of campaigning: they've done what they said that they were going to do, and stayed constantly engaged with Indian country,” says Ross, a lawyer with the Crowell Law Office. “In 2008, if you recall, Obama went from a heated primary to a heated general, and so the transition was seamless. This time, there was no primary, therefore it appears that things are starting a bit later, but they're not—the administration’s stump speech to Indian people has been through its actions.”

With Romney, there are plenty of unknowns. Nothing specifically about tribes or Indians has come out of his campaign so far. Two recent Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, were likewise unknown in their Indian and tribal positions early on during their campaigns, but got some policies very right for Indians; recent GOPers, especially George W. Bush and a crop of Tea Partiers in the current U.S. Congress, have gotten some things very wrong, such as when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, last year proposed eliminating the Bureau of Indian Affairs and slashing the Indian Health Service budget by half.

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“Romney comes from New England, which has become the most hostile region to tribal sovereignty in the past decade, and one of his first proposals as Massachusetts governor was to try to threaten out-of-state Indian tribes into plugging the state’s budget gap,” notes Foster, a Mvskoke Creek Nation citizen. A 2003 article in Governing magazine, titled Raid the Reservation, quotes Romney as saying to nearby out-of-state tribes, “If they refuse to provide at least $75 million to us, then we will engage in video lottery terminals of our own.” The governor ultimately gave up on this tribal shakedown, but it suggests he isn’t going to be much of a friend to Natives.

Indian country players close to the Romney camp say that it has reached out to Natives on get-out-the-vote efforts (GOTV) and plans are apparently in place to post a tribal policy position on his website, but details have been scarce. Much more is known about what the Obama campaign’s overarching GOTV organization looks like, and many Natives see some strong places for them to fit in. Case in point, the Democratic Party and Obama recently rolled out something called “the dashboard,” which is what they call a real-time electronic way for individuals to connect with each other and download and upload demographics to the Democratic Party. “It’s pretty staggering, and I don’t think Romney will have anything like it this year,” says Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker. “The new technology allows the campaign to micro-target households and individuals in swing districts, counties, and neighborhoods. With this dashboard, Activist X should be able to create and read out a walking list of door-to-door contacts they could hit in an evening, and at the same time, the Party would know that, too, and have the results of Activist X’s evening doorbelling.”

Stearns says a key in Native voter outreach will be whether the campaigns can expand their outreach beyond the traditional tribal leader endorsements, rallies, feeds and yard signs. “There is an overwhelming push to take advantage of the digital power in peoples’ laptops, cell phones, and through social media,” he says. “The question is whether Indian country’s lack of digital infrastructure will leave them behind.”

In 2008, Stearns used an earlier version of the dashboard canvassing software in Washington state to hone in on Native voters. “It could identify Native households in Seattle and elsewhere and we could send out people to target neighborhoods already armed with information of who was in their house, voting history, and number of previous contacts,” he recalls. “The problem is that someone has to enter that data in the first place. Most of it comes from the Secretary of State, but that is old [data] sometimes, and it has to be supplemented by Party data collected on-line, at caucuses and primaries, and through volunteers. There are just some huge data gaps, however, on what has been collected and what will be collected in Indian country. I think that is the challenge this year.”

Efforts by the National Congress of American Indians, which rolled out its Native Vote campaign earlier this year, are expected to fill some of those gaps, as well as use more traditional methods. It has already issued a public service announcement with the tagline, “Be the Native Vote,” which features multi-tribal Native actor Chaske Spencer, best known for his role in the Twilight Saga, in an effort to engage young Indian voters.

Another challenge for Indians in getting attention from the campaigns is that of the key battleground states identified thus far—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin—only in that last state are there substantial numbers of Indians. But even in the battleground states with fewer Native voters, even a slight edge on one reservation could make a difference. Virginia alone has 11 state recognized tribes, some of which aren’t all that far from Washington, D.C.

Money will still be paramount, and while the richest tribes have started out making strong contributions to Obama’s campaign, many tribes simply cannot afford to give much. And no tribe—rich or poor—can compete with the super PACs pumping millions into the campaign. “There is no way that tribes, or anyone else, can compete with the level of money that these well-funded interests will throw into the political process,” McCool told ICTMN last year.


In recent days, the Obama campaign seemed to realize that it has a lot of work to do in Indian country. As of press time, it was scheduled to host a day-long Native American strategy session on June 15. “This is for the worker bees; next month they will be holding a national tribal leaders meeting,” says Theresa Sheldon, a Tulalip citizen who has long been involved in Native voting efforts.The invite-only affair is said to feature senior campaign officials who will work to develop an Indian GOTV plan. Lona Wilbur, a Swinomish citizen, was expected to be in attendance. She is one of the few Native Democratic super-delegates in the nation. Cecelia Fire Thunder, of the Oglala Sioux, and Todd Goodman, a Caddo citizen, are also super-delegates as members of the Democratic National Committee. (from 2008 Frank LaMere, of the Winnebago Tribe, was not reappointed in Nebraska, nor was Kalyn Free, a Choctaw citizen in Oklahoma.) In April, the campaign also started spreading the word that it planned to hire a Native American outreach person in Washington state, which is another positive sign, although it hasn’t been announced if that spot has been filled, or whether there are similar positions being hired in other states.

The hope of many is that this overdue powwow signifies that the Obama camp is finally ready to match or even outdo their 2008 efforts in Indian country. After all, there are now 567 federally recognized tribes, and many beyond the Crow Nation would welcome the honor of a visit from Obama, and surely some would be willing to adopt him all over again. The expectations for the Romney campaign remain much lower, but some Indian, somewhere, just might want to adopt him, too.