BOSTON - "Damn, there's a lot of Indian people here," said Frank LaMere
after the first Native caucus at the Democratic National Convention, on
July 26, drew around 200.
LaMere, Winnebago from Nebraska and an Executive Committee member of the
Democratic National Committee, recounted his outburst to a gathering of
more than 200 convention delegates and supporters at a clambake the next
day, July 27, hosted by the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and the North American
Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB).
On the third day of the convention, July 28, a standing room crowd easily
over 250 came to the second scheduled Native caucus, along with a parade of
Party celebrities and elected officials. Among many others, former
Presidential candidate Howard Dean and Brad Henry, the current Democratic
governor of Oklahoma, thanked American Indians for their support.
Years of talk and planning to make American Indians a factor in national
U.S. politics had suddenly taken shape in the flesh, and it was an
impressive sight. In a drama-free convention that was mainly a four-day
infomercial, the emerging Indian power, and the swirl of tensions around
it, provided what could well turn out to be the most historically
significant subplot in the nomination of the Democratic Presidential
The clambake on the lawn behind the cultural center for Boston's urban
Indians gave a forum for some of the detailed planning behind the drive for
Indian influence. LaMere asked for support in swelling the Native
representation on the national Democratic Party's governing body.
"In 1988, we had no members on the Democratic National Committee," he said.
"Now we have four, because of our determination. We want nine."
With nine members, he said, Indians would qualify for a formal standing
caucus under the party constitution, like the bodies devoted to Hispanics,
African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, women and gays and
lesbians. These groups each have a seat on the party's Executive Committee.
"Right now, we have a de facto caucus," he said, "but they're afraid to
call us that." He told the delegates to carry the word back home with them.
"That is the challenge before us," he said. If everyone worked on it back
in their state, he said, "we would have the nine members in a week."
Jackie Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American
Indians, urged the delegates to increase the clout of the Native Vote
project by keeping national leaders informed on their progress in
registering new voters. "We have to have the numbers," she said.
She briefly recounted efforts of several vote drives to "help tribes create
infrastructure that would last from one election to another." But the
strategy, she said, was also "to make the impact felt on the national
level." To do that, she said, Indian leaders in Washington, D.C. needed to
have figures on the number of new voters registered and their role in the
margin of victory in tight races.
It went without mentioning, although several speakers throughout the week
did mention it, that the Democratic Party was galvanized into recognizing
Indian voters when the late count from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South
Dakota gave the narrowest of re-election margins to U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.
The biggest Indian showing on the televised portion of the convention was
undoubtedly the July 27 rendition of the national anthem by the Tohono
O'odham singers. Several TV commentators launched into a brief discourse on
the Indian swing vote. But the real impact came in the round of meetings,
receptions and parties in the hotels and bars away from the super-tight
security around Boston's FleetCenter convention hall.
The Native spirit dominated at the clambake on the NAICOB grounds south of
Boston's Fenway. The afternoon of dances and talks brought western Indians
together with eastern tribes whose very real struggles are often not
appreciated throughout Indian country. The co-hosting Wampanoag Tribe of
Gay Head (Aquinnah), the one federally recognized tribe in Massachusetts,
has a national reputation through the work of its chair Beverly Wright and
her daughter Victoria, a senior officer at the National Indian Gaming
But the urban Indians served by NAICOB have been fighting in obscurity to
save their building. The problem is that their grounds are too pleasant,
and the state government, which owns them, wants to sell them for
condominiums. Easels at the clambake showed plans for a possible solution,
a refurbished NAICOB building surrounded by the development, but
negotiations are ongoing.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano hosted the glitzy Tribute to our Native
American Communities after the July 27 convention session. It featured
music by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy on the semi-open roof of Boston's World Trade
Center. But a storm from the west soaked the fringes and the pounding music
made conversation almost impossible
Stuwart Paisano, governor of the Sandia Pueblo, stepped into the rain to
talk briefly with Indian Country Today about his speech scheduled to open
the July 28 afternoon session. "I have three minutes and 300 words," he
said. A member of the Platform Committee, but not a delegate, he said he
would raise the issue of tribal sovereignty. (The platform's language
endorsing sovereignty and government-to-government relations provoked an
e-mail protest from a grass-roots "property rights" group, which seemed not
to realize that it restated constitutional law, but the convention adopted
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee held a last-minute cocktail
hour at the Sanctuary Bar. Sponsors included South Dakota's two Democratic
Sens. Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson and newly elected U.S. Rep. Stephanie
Herseth, but also Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Daschle's assistant Senate
Indian faces were sparser in the Sanctuary, but Tex Hall towered over the
suits with his white cowboy hat and flannel shirt and freely confirmed the
rumor that he was considering a national political career.
Hall was in and out of the convention, as was NIGA's Ernie Stevens Jr., who
left early to attend a Mississippi Choctaw tribal gathering. But even
without Hall the NCAI staff popped up everywhere, in close tandem with the
Native vote effort of the John Kerry campaign. Jackie Johnson and Kerry's
Native Outreach director Anna Sorrell seemed to be always just a few steps
Sorrell just weeks earlier was working for the Confederated Salish and
Kootenai Tribes in Montana and said she already had a plane ticket for home
in November. But the Kerry campaign was promising every chance it had that
if he won, the door to the White House would be open to the tribes as never