PRIOR LAKE, Minn. -- Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National
Committee and former presidential candidate, gave a big boost to INDN's
(Indigenous Democratic Network) List, an effort to recruit Native political
candidates, when he attended its inaugural Candidate's Camp at the Mystic
Lake Casino Hotel Oct. 13. He also got a crash course in Indian issues.
Dean was following through on a promise he made to the Native American
Caucus at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last summer.
Speaking to a standing-room-only meeting, he urged the Native delegates to
expand their political activity by running for office. He amplified the
theme at the Candidate's Camp, devoted to training Indians to do just that.
"Instead of a place at the table," he said at a press conference, "we want
you to have a place on the ticket."
But the message went both ways. Dean said he wanted to hear what concerned
Indian country, and he heard more than he might have anticipated. He was
plunged apparently out of his depth into the intricacies of Indian gaming
law. He also faced the emotional issue of tribal recognition and defended
his own opposition, as a former governor of Vermont, to state recognition
for its Abenaki Indians.
Dean gave a firm pledge of support to the more than 100 potential Native
candidates at the four-day training conference. "The DNC is committed to
empowering Indian country and to encouraging full participation in the
political process," he said in his keynote address. "We don't just want
your vote; we want you on the ballot."
He criticized some past Democratic Party approaches as one-sided. "I know
that some politicians look at Indian country as just a source of campaign
cash and a swing vote in certain elections," he said. "That must change.
The Democratic Party is taking no voters for granted.
"It is not enough for candidates to come to your communities six weeks
before an election and ask for your vote or to ask tribal leaders for
money. We have to show up now, organize, fight for what we believe and
encourage American Indian candidates across the country to run. You are the
essence of that effort."
He presented a traditional Democratic social agenda as "shared values" with
the tribal outlook. "For centuries, tribes have been committed to 'leaving
no one behind,'" he said. "The Democratic Party shares in that commitment,
which is why we fight for all the things that Democrats across the country
believe in: protecting families and communities; educating all our
children, not just those born into wealth; providing our families with
affordable, quality health care -- especially the one-third of Native
American families that lack health insurance; providing care and services
for our children, our elderly, and the less fortunate."
In a teleconference with Native media, however, Dean faced a less familiar
set of issues. He confessed that he was unfamiliar with legislation that
would cut back the types of machines allowed in Class II casinos. He said
that as governor he opposed gambling, and he gave a more limited
interpretation of the legal basis for Indian gaming than many would accept.
"I like the idea that whatever the states can do, the tribes can do," he
said. "If the state doesn't have any gambling, the tribes shouldn't have
(The predominant reading of the Supreme Court's 1987 California v. Cabazon
Band of Mission Indians decision, however, is that tribes are not limited
to offering only the types of games that state law allows. If a state
treats gaming as a matter of regulation, instead of a criminal activity,
then it has no constitutional authority to impose its regulations on a
sovereign tribal government.)
Dean also dodged a chance to attack the Bush administration for its
reversal the day before of recognition for two Connecticut tribes. Although
many American Indians in the region were deeply emotional about the
reversal, Democratic officeholders had worked strenuously against the two
tribes. Dean said that in some cases, previously recognized tribes had
opposed federal acknowledgement of other tribes.
Reminded that while governor of Vermont he had vigorously opposed state
recognition of the St. Francis/Sokoki Band of Missisquoi Abenaki Indians,
he reaffirmed his position. "They did not meet the criteria for
recognition," he said. "Also, I didn't want to introduce gambling in my
state," he said.
Although Dean began his governorship on friendly terms with the state's
Abenaki band, relations shortly deteriorated between him and its fiery
leader, Homer St. Francis. Although Dean vigorously courted Indian support
in his presidential campaign and was endorsed by some leading Native
activists, the band circulated material about his positions as governor
that John Kerry's campaign effectively used against him in the Southwestern
presidential primaries. The band later endorsed Gen. Wesley Clark for the
Dean said, however, that he wasn't following Indian affairs in his home
state and wouldn't comment on an Abenaki recognition bill now before the
He ended the press conference on firmer ground, however, when a
representative of the National Congress of American Indians asked about
improving access to the Education Department. The answer, he said, "is to
appoint Native Americans to high positions. If you do that, the access
On home turf, he said he was committed to expanding the Native presence in
the DNC, noting that he had just appointed Kalyn Free, founder of INDN's
List, as committeeman. He said he wasn't sure how far short the number of
Indians on the committee fell from the threshold that would create a formal
Native caucus, since most appointments were done by state parties.
Minorities with a minimum of nine members on the DNC are eligible to set up
their own caucus. But he said the committee might consider revising the
rules to make the Native caucus possible.
Whatever the controversies in his home state, Dean was warmly welcomed to
the Candidate's Camp. Said Free, in announcing his attendance: "We are
honored and excited to have the chairman of the DNC fully supporting the
mission of INDN's List, which is to change the face of color and power in
America by electing Native Americans to public office."