WASHINGTON - Despite strong enthusiasm for Sen. Hillary Clinton in some areas of Indian country, Sen. Barack Obama has locked up the Native superdelegate vote in the Democratic race for president.
Laurie Weahkee, an organizer with the Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality Council in New Mexico, has joined Kalyn Free, founder of the INDN;s List political organization, and Frank LaMere, chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Native American Caucus, in vowing to cast a vote for the senator from Illinois at the Democratic National Convention to be held in Denver in August.
A fourth American Indian superdelegate, Montana state Rep. Margarett Campbell, has said privately that she is supporting Obama, but she can't officially endorse him until after Montana holds its primary on June 3, in accordance with state party rules.
American Indians account for four out of the roughly 800 total superdelegates in the Democratic Party. Superdelegates are party insiders and officials who are seated automatically at the Democratic National Convention. They are not selected based on results from state party primaries and caucuses, nor is their support bound by state election results. They are free to support any candidate for their party's nomination.
LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, is believed to be the longest-serving American Indian superdelegate, having been involved on the national political scene for some 20 years. He first served as a superdelegate in 1996 and again in 2000 and 2004, but the position has never held much prominence until this year.
''Obama speaks to my hope that things will be better in our communities and among our Indian nations,'' he said. ''The question I asked myself before I made the endorsement was, 'We can win, but can we change things?' It is my hope and feeling that Barack Obama is going to give Indian country its best crack at change.''
He spoke personally with Obama on a number of occasions prior to making his official endorsement, most notably during the Iowa caucuses Feb. 5. At that time, LaMere told Obama it was important for him to ''focus on Indian issues and the need to get Indian support.''
''Obama has taken a number of steps to reach out to Indian country, and he plans to continue to do so between now and November,'' he said, adding that he believes the senator will tap several Indians to serve in the White House if he is elected in November.
The Winnebago political activist also said he firmly believes that Indian country needs a ''New Deal,'' similar to the series of proposals President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped usher in to aid the U.S. during and after the Great Depression.
''It is time to rethink our approaches to changing things. Right now, there's an atmosphere in this political process where change is talked of, but then we end up seeing business as usual.''
Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, was appointed as a superdelegate by DNC Chairman Gov. Howard Dean in 2005. She has served on the DNC since 2004.
''Sen. Obama is inspiring a whole new generation of people to become politically active,'' Free said. ''They're really getting engaged as full participants in the process - whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, that's a good thing for democracy.''
Free has also personally spoken with Obama about his commitment to Indian issues.
''Having him as a party standard bearer is going to do great things in race relations - not just around the world, but within America as well,'' she said. ''I am confident that he will be a great president for Indian country.''
Obama has told Free that he is aware and supportive of the work of INDN's List, which strives to recruit, train and fund Indian candidates and staff, while also mobilizing the Indian vote throughout the nation.
It was somewhat difficult for Free to choose between Obama and Clinton, especially since she served in President Bill Clinton's administration under Attorney General Janet Reno as a senior counsel on Indian resources. She noted that Bill Clinton's administration did many positive things for Indians, and she believes that Sen. Clinton would be able to make strides as well.
In the end, though, Free believes Obama will be able to do more.
''I have a tremendous amount of respect for both President Clinton and Sen. Clinton,'' Free said. ''But I also have a long-term objective in building the Democratic Party. ... There are more than two families that can run this country.''
LaMere, too, said the decision between Obama and Clinton was difficult.
''What really tipped the balance for me was that we had an opportunity through the '90s with a Democratic administration, headed by Sen. Clinton's husband, and I had to ask myself, 'Have things changed in Pine Ridge from 1992 to now?' I think everybody knows that answer. We need a different approach.''
Weahkee, meanwhile, has had much less time as a superdelegate than LaMere, Free and Campbell to make up her mind to support Obama over Clinton. The Zuni/Cochiti/Navajo voter registration advocate was only recently selected by the New Mexico Democratic Party to serve as an add-on superdelegate for the state. She beat out another Native woman, Charlotte Little of Taos, by a 71 - 59 vote.
By the time she became a superdelegate, Weahkee said she believed it to be ''rather unlikely'' that Clinton could catch Obama in pledged delegate count, and she expressed a desire for the Democratic Party to stop its infighting and to begin its battle in earnest against presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.