WASHINGTON - The nine tribal governments in Oregon have gathered in the support of Sen. Gordon Smith, turning out at a press conference to endorse him for November re-election in the early month of May and (also as of May) donating $16,500 to his campaign since 2004. The La Grande Observer newspaper called it ;'by far the most given by tribes to a Republican.''
Notwithstanding the significant number of Indians who are also Republicans, Indian country is overwhelmingly Democratic.
But Thomas C. Rodgers of Carlyle Consulting in Washington, one in an expanding circle of Indian-issue lobbyists and advocates on Capitol Hill, said that party lines matter less than a policy track record and tribal acceptance when Indian country looks at elections.
''It is all about building a coalition of support for Indian country,'' Rodgers said. ''And to paraphrase ... it is by their deeds and not their rhetoric that they will be known.''
Smith's deeds on behalf of tribes are legion, according to Rodgers and a number of tribal leaders in Oregon.
''If there's one constant theme to Sen. Gordon Smith's Indian country record,'' Rodgers said, ''it is treating Indian tribes as governments.'' He cited Smith's introduction and serious backing of bills in Congress that would treat tribal tax-exempt bond issues and employee pensions as they are treated in the case of state and municipal governments - that is, with no extra onerous terms for tribes only.
At Warm Springs, according to the Confederated Umatilla Journal, Smith's co-sponsorship of the Tribal Forest Protection Act is helping the tribe with a biomass energy production project that will restore healthy forestation to Oregon's storied timber stands. Warm Springs Tribal Council Chairman Ron Suppah told the Umatilla
publication that Smith has shown bipartisanship leadership on a range of national Indian issues. At home, he added, Smith has assisted the tribe with a key hydropower production project, with health services, and with an important work in progress - the recovery of ancient Celilo Village. ''He's good for Oregon's tribes and good for all Oregonians. He deserves to be re-elected.''
The Associated Press reported that Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation board of trustees, considers Smith ''our neighbor,'' based on the proximity of the reservation to Smith's hometown, Pendleton, Ore. ''He votes his conscience to protect the rights of Indians.''
In the East Oregonian, tribes took note of Smith's engagement with the Umatilla Basin Project, an ongoing successful effort to return salmon to the Umatilla River in considerable numbers, while supplying riparian irrigators with a stable water source.
''Being our hometown senator, Smith has been very accessible to the Umatilla Tribe,'' Minthorn said, ''but I also know that every Oregon tribe has gained tangible benefits thanks to his leadership.''
The Coquille, Grand Ronde and Burns Paiute leaders also made public statements saluting Smith's respect for tribes.
Smith's positions on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee have amplified his influence for tribes.
In an election year increasingly regarded as unfavorable to Republicans generally, the Democratic Party has targeted Smith as a vulnerable incumbent. Republicans of a conservative stamp have disowned him, largely due to his rejection of the war in Iraq.
At the end of June, Smith along with Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, Oregon Democrats, introduced a bill that would permit the Coast Guard to transfer ownership of abandoned Cape Arago lighthouse to the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw tribes for preservation. The lighthouse's Chief's Island location is a burial site and ancestral village.