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Indian vote could auger in liberal era

PORTLAND, Ore. - It's a zigzag line that roughly mirrors 20-year periods.
The visual image helps explain why "Indian people - voters - can be
apathetic about their issues," said University of Alaska Anchorage's
Director of Native Studies and Associate Professor of History, Dr. Jeanne
Eder.

"If you study federal Indian policies, you'll find the ones that promote
tribal integrity mirror liberal administrations - those are the ones at the
top of the zigzag. Conversely when the conservatives are in control, the
sovereignty and rights of Native people tend to come under fire," Eder, who
is a member of the Dakota-Lakota Sioux tribe, continued. "And because
people's memories are short, when we're coming out of a conservative era
like we are now, Indians can be so alienated that they can't imagine how
voting would do any good. It's the same when the liberals are in power,
Indians can get lulled into thinking their battles are won. That's where
history comes in. It shows how cyclical the political system is, and how
important vigilance is. How important it is for Indians to come together
and use the political process as a force for change."

Eder stops short of endorsing John Kerry, a candidate for whom she has
reservations, but she does assert that "Democratic administrations are
generally better for American Indians." Also Eder observed, "right now the
Democrats are asking the Native people for their vote. That hasn't happened
in the past because we don't pull any clout in the Electoral College. So
the fact that the Kerry campaign is courting the Indian vote is very good.
It would probably have more success, though, if it told Indians about the
20 year cycles, and how a Kerry administration could help the pendulum
start to swing in a more favorable direction than it has been since the
Reagan era, Clinton years notwithstanding."

While Eder marks out 20-year cycles in her overview of American Indian
history, she also divides the last 500 years into three periods in order to
focus on pervasive themes. Basically, as long as various nations were vying
over control of the continent, the tribes fared well, playing one group off
against another. But once the United States came into its own, and pushed
westward, the tribes suffered during the grab for land and natural
resources. Finally, in more recent years, the tribes that survived have
been gaining ground and coming back into their own to some degree. "Within
each of these major eras, though," Eder pointed out, "we still see the
cyclical fluctuations. What I try to do is show people how this works so
they see how important it is for Natives to try and support Democratic
candidates that will strengthen the good times and soften the bad ones."

Eder terms the years from 1492 - 1812 the period of Equality. "It was a
time when Indian nations controlled economic and trade relations between
the colonists, Great Britain, France and Spain," Eder said. "The tribes
really had a good deal of economic clout then - before the United States
came into its own in the War of 1812 (also called the Second War of
Independence) when the fledging nation finally severed itself from Great
Britain's dominance."

"I call the 1812 - 1890s period the Years of Aggression. During this time
Euro-American expansion explodes to the West, and the issue of indigenous
sovereignty is challenged in the Supreme Court." Eder noted the Indian
Removal Act of 1830 and the discovery of gold in Georgia that brought these
issues before the Marshall Court. "I think John Marshall attempted to
protect the rights of indigenous people, but he was overruled by Andrew
Jackson in the Removal Act. Still, Marshall left the legacy of the
semi-sovereign status in tact." By semi-sovereign, Eder refers to the right
to self-government via a government-to-government relationship between the
tribes and the federal government, but not the right to negotiate foreign
treaties. "From the Marshall Court, I go into the Dawes Allotment Act, and
its attempt to assimilate Native people and turn them into private,
landowning agrarians," said Eder. "A big failure, and the largest grab in
the United States."

Eder's third period runs from 1900 to the present and she terms it:
Reclaiming Equality. Within this time frame it is especially easy to see
the 20-year cycles. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 which among other
things gave Indians the vote and citizenship, marked an upswing. Then came
the now discredited Termination policy of the 1950s that stripped some
tribes of their federally-recognized status and what remained of their land
base. And finally the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975
that fostered a shift of power from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to local
tribal governments.

"By connecting the dots between these dates," Eder said, "students can see
that anti-Indian and pro-Indian policies come in cycles, in waves around 20
years apart. This history needs to become part of our racial memory."

"When we understand how this works, we are empowered. Then rather than
giving into oppression, we realize that we can help influence the swing of
the pendulum to some degree. More, if we start timing it right, we can
begin to see that by taking an active part in the political arena, we can
effect change. We can stop sitting back and just talking about what the
white man is going to do with us.

"Talk like that might have been appropriate during Red Cloud's time, when
Indians were getting shuffled around to this reservation and that one so
much he wondered why the white people just didn't put the Indians on wheels
and give them wagons," Eder said. "But this is the 21st century now. I
don't want to overstate things. We are still the minority ... But we do
have some power. And we need to use that to get to the tables where the
decisions are made. We need to become part of the political discussion
instead of languishing in the background."

Clearly if Eder has her way, Indian country will come out in force at the
polls this year. And it will help swing the pendulum back from the
conservation regime and bring in a new administration - a more liberal,
Democratic one, that has historically, time and again, shown itself to
support the indigenous people of this land. As noted Northwest Indian
rights leader Billy Frank Jr. said at a recent Portland gathering, "We've
got to get away from Bush. He's been taking us in the wrong direction."