WASHINGTON - In another sign that the Democratic race for the White House will go down to the wire, Sen. Hillary Clinton has released a sweeping ;'South Dakota Native American Agenda'' that aims to increase opportunity and improve the quality of services for Indians in the state.
The proposal, according to Clinton's campaign, is grounded in the principle of tribal sovereignty, while focusing on improving the quality of health care, creating jobs and combating crime.
''For seven years, the Bush administration has failed to live up to its commitment to the Native American community in South Dakota and across the nation,'' she said in a statement released May 20.
''By making targeted investments to create good-paying jobs and ensuring everyone has access to quality, affordable health care and by continuing to partner with the Native American community within the government to government framework, we can begin to undo some of the damage President Bush's neglect has caused.''
While Clinton is currently offering up positive proposals for South Dakota Indians, she still finds herself trailing Sen. Barack Obama in some polls in the state. Some tribal leaders have already endorsed the senator from Illinois over her.
''Despite Sen. Obama's support from the Democratic establishment in South Dakota, there is a groundswell of grass-roots enthusiasm for Hillary,'' said Ben Kobren, a spokesman for Clinton's South Dakota-based efforts. ''The campaign is working tirelessly in Indian country and across the state to harness this energy and turn out voters on June 3.''
Kobren also noted that Bill Clinton has visited the Pine Ridge Reservation, just as he did in 1999 when he was president. ''You ought to vote for her because she's the best change maker I have ever known,'' the former president told a crowd of Indian attendees May 10. Some in the audience held signs that read ''Every Vote Counts'' and ''S.D. Needs HRC.''
While Bobby Kennedy is believed to be the last presidential candidate to have campaigned on Pine Ridge, in 1968, Kobren said that the campaign is ''looking into'' future visits by the Clintons to Indian reservations in South Dakota.
Lula Red Cloud, an Oglala Sioux descendant of the famous Chief Red Cloud, has been vocal in her support for Clinton, and she believes Indian voters could tip the balance in Clinton's favor during the state's upcoming primary.
''I believe she is the best president for Indian country,'' Red Cloud said, adding that she's especially impressed with the senator from New York's health care plans. Several of Red Cloud's relatives have passed away due to complications from diabetes.
Clinton wants to expand access to affordable health care by increasing funding for the IHS budget and elevating the director of the IHS to the assistant secretary level. She also plans to declare war on juvenile diabetes to counter the skyrocketing incidence rate of the disease among young American Indians.
While serving in the U.S. Senate, Clinton has already taken steps to improve the access and quality of health care for Native people by co-sponsoring the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendment of 2007. The legislation is currently held up in the House waiting for reauthorization to move forward.
Francis Pumpkin Seed, an Oglala Sioux Clinton supporter in his 20s, said he's supportive of her policies and impressed with the breadth of her health care plans.
''Diabetes is already touching and hurting our younger generations. Hillary's funding for programs that would help in this area are encouraging.''
Pumpkin Seed added that he doesn't feel that Obama is as knowledgeable as Clinton on Indian health care issues. ''It's just not something that I see him pushing for.'' Obama found supporters in Montana's Crow country, where the presidential hopeful was adopted into the family of the Crow vice chairman. He is said to be the first presidential candidate to visit Crow Agency.
If Clinton is elected president, she also plans to invest in work force development programs to help Native people become prepared for 21st century jobs. She pledges to invest $2.5 billion per year, which includes investments in tribes, in order to strengthen the nation's work force development efforts; and she's made a commitment to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011. She has also pledged to fund research in renewable energies, including wind and solar, which could help lower energy costs and create jobs and financial incentives for Indian country.
South Dakota Indian reservations, which currently contain four of the five counties in the U.S. with the lowest per capita income, are in dire need in the work force development area. Over the last seven years, income levels for American Indians have remained stagnant, and in South Dakota, less than 40 percent of the reservation population is employed.
Clinton's new plan also targets increased crime rates, particularly those related to the sale and use of crystal meth. She believes the current staffing levels of BIA officers and tribal uniformed police officers are ''simply insufficient'' to meet the law enforcement challenges facing Indian country. She plans to provide additional resources for Indian country law enforcement, but has not provided a specific amount to date.
''I like all of her plans, and I believe she will go through with them,'' Red Cloud said. ''She's not just saying this stuff for campaign purposes. She and Bill have been good to our people.''
Pumpkin Seed, meanwhile, can't wait to see Clinton on Pine Ridge in the coming days, he hopes. ''I would enjoy having Hillary here,'' he said. ''And an enormous amount of people would show up for her, if she did come on out. We love her.''
Clinton was scheduled to return to South Dakota May 23.