In Obama, an exciting opportunity


This presidential election season has generated considerable excitement around the nation. And there is a reason for it. It may well be the most important election of our lifetime. America faces grave challenges - a war, climate change, the economy, the lack of access to health care, to name a few - that cry out for solution. And, we also have a unique opportunity to change the direction of the country in a fundamental and transformative way.

Those of us in Indian country have a stake in the outcome of this presidential election at this critical time in the nation's politics. We have been following the campaign of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the past year with special interest and have been impressed that Native Americans have always figured prominently in his campaign of inclusion.

In his major speech on race, Sen. Obama included Native Americans once again in his call for unity to address the challenges of the new century. He said, ''This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can't learn; that those kids who don't look like us are somebody else's problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.''

Indian country certainly has a right to be skeptical about national politicians. We know from personal experience that all too often promises made on the campaign trail fade in the act of governance.

But we have come to believe that Sen. Obama offers a different kind of leadership and presents an opportunity for Native peoples that we have not seen before. He has shown that he appreciates the unique history and challenges of our communities. And he understands that we can only realize our common dreams if we are equal partners in the national dialogue.

Sen. Obama began his career as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago. He has said that this experience showed him that change comes from empowering communities and reinforced his respect for tribal sovereignty. He dismisses what he calls one-size-fits-all solutions from Washington and says that empowering tribal communities to address their own problems will be an important goal of his presidency. That message resonates with Native peoples because Indian country is confident that we have the answer to our challenges but need an administration that will be a partner with us.

Sen. Obama throughout this campaign has demonstrated his desire to listen to and work with Native communities by meeting with Native American tribal leaders all across the country and by assembling an impressive group of Native American advisers. His commitment to addressing our priorities is evident in the agenda he laid out for Indian country, ''Principles for Stronger Tribal Communities,'' which emphasizes his support for tribal sovereignty and his commitment to improve the government-to-government relationship between the tribes and the federal government. His plan also calls for greater federal resources to help tribes address shortfalls in health care, education, law enforcement and energy assistance, and to support regulated Indian gaming as a tribal resource.

But what is most far-reaching, innovative and exciting about Sen. Obama's well-crafted agenda is that he has pledged to take unprecedented steps as president to bring Native Americans into the conversation and into partnership in defining and prioritizing a policy agenda for tribal communities. He will communicate directly with Native American leaders and include them in important policy decisions that impact Indian country. His plan includes a promise to appoint an American Indian policy adviser on his senior White House staff so that Indian country has a clear voice at the highest levels of the Obama administration. He also pledges to call an annual meeting with Native American leaders to develop and implement a national Indian policy agenda. These are the type of ideas and this is the kind of leadership that will bring the fundamental change we so desperately need.

Sen. Obama understands our unique challenges and will work to solve them. But he also believes that ''we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together - unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction - towards a better future for our children and our grandchildren.''

At the dawn of the 21st century, when the United States overall has greater income disparity than we've seen since the first year of the Great Depression, when some CEOs are making more in a day than the average worker makes in a year, when wages are flat, jobs are moving overseas and the cost of health care, energy and college are rising, and when one in eight Americans now lives in abject poverty, Obama is issuing a call for unity so that we can make real change for all Americans that will restore balance in our economy and put us all on a path to prosperity. As he said in last week's speech, to do that ''requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams,'' and that ''the children of America are not these kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy.''

Nowhere do these words reverberate and find a home more than in Indian country. A 2003 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that American Indians suffer from a ''quiet crisis'' of poverty, unemployment and discrimination. As Native Americans, we know what that means in the daily lives of our people.

In endorsing Sen. Obama for president, The Native American Times wrote: ''Perhaps more than anything, Obama inspires us to want and dream of more. Indian country has been waiting for someone like Barack for a long time. Now is the time for positive change and now is the time to vote Barack Obama.'' Day by day, as the 2008 campaign unfolds it becomes more and more clear that Sen. Obama is the right choice for Native Americans and all Americans.

John Yellowbird Steele, president, Oglala Sioux Tribe; William ''Shorty'' Brewer, vice president, Oglala Sioux Tribe; Michael Jandreau, chairman, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe; Rodney Bordeaux, president, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; Robert Moore, councilman, Rosebud Sioux Tribe; and Joseph Brings Plenty, chairman, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, are members of Sen. Barack Obama's Tribal Leaders Steering Committee.