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Kerry courts Indian country

Gains tribal leaders' endorsements

GALLUP, N.M. - When Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry rolled
into town to court the Native vote, he brought with him some formidable
assets - his firsthand knowledge of issues facing Indian country and his
strong stance on respecting tribal sovereignty.

"The federal government has a special relationship with tribal nations that
we need to remember. The treaties are the law of the land. It is embodied
in our Constitution.

"When I take the oath of office as the President of the United States, I
swear to uphold the Constitution and the treaties that are part of it,"
Kerry pledged.

He also promised to name American Indians to key positions throughout his
administration, including a White House liaison to Indian country, to
elevate the Indian Health Service director to an assistant secretary level,
and to increase funding for Indian health care and education.

Accompanied by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, New Mexico Gov. Bill
Richardson and about 90 journalists covering the "Believe in America"
campaign tour, Kerry was looking to boost support in swing states like
Arizona and New Mexico where the Native vote can make a difference.

Kerry's whistle-stop train tour through key battleground states stopped in
Las Vegas, Albuquerque and Gallup, N.M., and in Winslow and Flagstaff,
Ariz. to allow him to connect with Indian leaders and voters, who helped Al
Gore win New Mexico in 2000 by 366 votes. Several Pueblo governors met with
him on the train from Albuquerque.


At the 83rd Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial Pow Wow, Kerry and his wife were
welcomed by a cheering crowd of about 4,000 people including veterans,
dancers and singers from more than 30 tribes.

Against the backdrop of Red Rock State Park's towering cliffs, Navajo
Nation Councilman and Vietnam veteran Larry Anderson, Sr. offered a prayer
for their safekeeping while fanning them with eagle feathers.

Keith Little of Crystal, N.M., one of many Navajo Code Talkers in
attendance, presented Senator Kerry - a decorated war veteran who served in
Vietnam alongside many American Indians - with a gift of a Navajo rug and
encouraging words.

"Navajo Code Talkers made many strategic landings in our time," said
Little. "We want you to strategically plan and occupy the White House for
the next few years, for the benefit of all Native Americans. When you do,
we will be right there with you."

As the crowd cheered, Kerry responded by asking veterans to stand and be
recognized. He asked the audience to thank them for defending America.

Kerry, who has said America needs to live up to the obligations of its
trust relationship to Indian people, touched on some of the elements
outlined in his comprehensive American Indian policy intended to address
rising poverty.

"It is a sad fact that one-third of Native Americans have no health
insurance and that [their] life expectancy is lower than any other groups.
We are spending more money on federal prisoner's health care than on the
health of Native Americans. John Edwards and I will raise funding for IHS,"
he said.

Kerry later said he would roll back President Bush's tax cuts for the
wealthiest Americans and dedicate that money to funding education for
America's children.

He also talked about the importance of acting on values, not just talking
about them. "Values spoken, without actions taken, are just slogans. Values
are the choices we make, and it's time people in public life stop talking
about family values and start valuing families."


When Kerry returned to the train he was joined by Arizona Gov. Janet
Napolitano, Navajo President Joe Shirley and his wife Vikki, Speaker of the
Navajo Nation Council Lawrence T. Morgan, Arizona State Sen. Albert Hale,
Arizona Representative Jack Jackson Jr., White Mountain Apache Chairman
Dallas Massey and Navajo Council delegate Ervin Keeswood.

As the train headed for the Arizona border, dozens of Navajo people lined
the railroad tracks at small communities, cheering and waving Kerry signs.

Massey told a story that exemplified much of Indian country's frustrations
with the Bush administration. When the White Mountain Apaches lost more
than one-third of their timber in the 2002 massive Rodeo fire, President
Bush stopped there for a photo opportunity and promised aid to the

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"He said we would be the number one priority. We haven't seen or heard from
him since," said Massey, who has tried numerous times to meet with Bush to
seek help for soaring poverty and unemployment on his reservation.

President Shirley expressed similar disappointment, noting that despite
many attempts, the largest Indian nation in the country has yet to secure
an audience with the sitting president.

He said tribes are becoming "endangered species" whose cultures and
languages are being lost without adequate funding to improve education,
health care and employment opportunities.

Kerry said as he travels the country, many people tell him the Bush
administration has not listened to or respected their concerns. He said
many Americans have been met with "a wall of silence" while Bush caters to
special interests.


In his extended meeting with tribal officials, Kerry spelled out his views
on the importance of respecting government-to-government relations with
Indian nations. He promised to partner with tribes to improve health care,
provide more educational opportunities, strengthen economic development
efforts and help Native business owners create jobs.

Kerry also said it was important to find a Secretary of the Interior who
would create responsive and respectful relationships with tribes. "I
understand that it's hard to find someone in Interior to talk to right now
and that would make a big difference."

Navajo Nation Speaker Lawrence Morgan told Kerry that Navajo unemployment
rates run as high as 50 percent on average and Navajo government is trying
to develop remedies. He said full funding is needed for BIA programs that
provide roads, schools, law enforcement and a variety of other essential
services. But he also asked that no changes be made to BIA without
meaningful consultation with the tribes affected.

Kerry also committed to ensure that tribes would be treated as equals with
states and counties to receive direct funding from Homeland Security and
that he would appoint an American Indian within the department to help

Navajo leaders also discussed water rights settlements, federal funding
gaps, the impact of recent Supreme Court rulings against Indian country and
representation at the United Nations.

Kerry said his new energy plan, intended to decrease America's dependence
on foreign oil and to create thousands of new jobs by developing
alternative energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal, would include
tribal initiatives.

Senator Hale said Kerry's meetings with Indian nations demonstrated far
more respect than the Bush Administration has accorded tribes and the
gesture to Indian country is an important one.

In comparison, at a speech before 7,500 minority journalists, Bush stumbled
over the meaning of sovereignty.

"Tribal sovereignty means that, it's sovereign. You're a - you've been
given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity," Bush said in
response to a question about the meaning of tribal sovereignty.


In Winslow, where the campaign had planned to slow down and wave to waiting
crowds, two bed sheet banners caught Kerry's attention. One said, "Give Us
10 Minutes" and the next one said, "We'll Give You Eight Years."

Kerry stopped the train and took a few minutes to talk to 1,000 supporters
about his plans for a better America, telling them "Help is on the way!"

Though the train was an hour late when it arrived in Flagstaff on Aug. 8,
an estimated 12,000 supporters were still waiting at 10:30 on a Sunday
night in Heritage Square.

The lively crowd cheered on Kerry, his wife, and daughter, Vanessa, who
joined Gov. Napolitano, Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor, former Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbit and other supporters onstage for a rally marked by
outbursts of applause.

President Shirley chose that setting to endorse the Kerry - Edwards ticket,
adding to endorsements from the White Mountain Apache Tribe and dozens of
other tribal leaders.

"For far too long, critical issues related to Native America have been on
the back burner," Shirley said. "Senator Kerry has listened and knows our
issues and I believe he will be there for our Native people. He promised us
we would be at the table and I have no reason to doubt him."

Later, the campaign announced the formation of Native Americans for Kerry -
Edwards, a group of prominent Indian people who will work to organize and
mobilize the Native vote in the last 90 days before the election.