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Last minute Indian country support aided Obama

WASHINGTON – In another sign that Sen. Barack Obama has widespread support in Indian country as he prepares to be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, prominent Republican Indian leaders decided to abandon Sen. John McCain in the election’s waning hours.

One of the most prominent McCain supporters who had a change of heart in the final days was W. Ron Allen, an executive board member of the National Congress of American Indians.

“Many of my traditionally-Republican and independent Native friends did the same thing,” Allen said soon after casting his vote for Obama on Election Day.

“I think we had some amount of influence. A lot of undecided Indian voters certainly might have looked and observed our views. When they saw us come out and endorse Sen. Obama, it’s the kind of motivation that may have put them over the hump.”

Roy Sampsel, a board member of the Institute for Tribal Government, said he, too, saw many of his Republican peers decide to endorse Obama in the latter stages of the campaign after having the chance to carefully weigh both candidates’ pledges.

Sampsel, who’s of Choctaw and Wyandotte descent, noted that the tribal council of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon resolved in late-October to support Obama, despite having several prominent GOP members.

“They respected and knew Sen. McCain from his years in the Senate and on the Indian Affairs Committee, but the decision was that Obama could bring the changes needed in Washington…. He just articulated his message better.”

Sampsel, who voted via absentee ballot for Obama, said he still considers himself a proud Republican.

The conversion of Allen, who chairs the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, is perhaps the most dramatic example of a Native pro-McCain supporter crossing party lines. He was announced as a member of the American Indians for McCain Coalition during the Republican National Convention in September. Later that month, he offered positive assessments of McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, telling Indian Country Today that “if she and Sen. McCain are elected, it would provide a basis for a stronger Indian policy.”

But Allen said “something big” changed for him between mid-September and late-October when the Obama campaign triumphantly released a statement from him indicating that he had switched allegiances. He still sees himself as a friend to McCain, but said a combination of circumstances built up that forced him not to cast his vote for the senator from Arizona.

“It always bothered me that [McCain] had taken such a hard line attitude on earmarks, because earmarks have been opportunities to make meaningful adjustment to the budget on Indian-focused policies.

“I could not get him or his team to put together a platform that had a stronger commitment to correcting the wrongs and injustices that have happened to tribes over the years.”

Allen said his pleas were not ignored by the McCain campaign, but the feedback he received was “not as definitive” as he would have liked on specific issues, including budgetary commitments and regulatory oversight over gaming.

Allen added that McCain’s policy team was made up of many former Bush administration officials, who have not traditionally been strong supporters of positive Indian country policies. He noted that his distaste for President George W. Bush’s policies played a role in his decision to endorse Democratic Sen. John Kerry in his 2004 failed bid for the presidency.

Regarding his former support of Palin, Allen said that as he learned more about her work in Alaska, he became skeptical of her, as she seemed to strongly favor the interests of corporate structures over those of tribes.

As for why Obama captured his vote and endorsement, Allen said that the senator from Illinois is a “new, fresh direction for Indian country.” He noted, too, that Obama promised to create a higher level White House official position focused on Indian issues than the one proposed by McCain.

Allen also believes Obama “has shown leadership and foresight on issues impacting tribal communities and an unprecedented commitment to working with tribal nations,” according to his statement released by the campaign.

“Barack Obama…has been actively engaging our community from the beginning. He respects tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, noting that our relationships must be on a ‘nation-to-nation’ to basis.

“Those words reflect a fundamental respect for Indian country that has been missing for the last eight years.”

As a result of his decision, Allen found himself as part of a movement of Native people who have traditionally voted Republican, but decided to cross party lines to vote for President-elect Obama. Some even labeled themselves “Obamacans.”

Several well-known Native Americans turned out to be members of the Obamacan camp this year, including famous Oglala Sioux athlete Billy Mills; Myrna Gardner, president and CEO of Kakivik Asset Management; and Tim Wapato, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes who previously worked for the National Indian Gaming Association.

Melvin Sheldon Jr., president of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, said that as an independent voter, he found it difficult – but necessary – to pull the lever in favor of Obama over McCain.

“I am a Vietnam veteran, just like McCain, and I appreciate the years of work he has done for Indian country. … It was very hard for me to make the decision.

“But, in the end, I believe Obama when he said he’s going to make a difference for Indian people.”

Ron Johnson, a member of the American Indians for McCain Coalition, said he respected the decisions of Allen and others to vote for Obama.

“Each of us has our opinions,” said Johnson, president of Minnesota’s Prairie Island Indian Community.

“In Minnesota, the Republican party isn’t friendly to our issues. Nationally, our Republican representatives have helped our tribal issues. Enough said.”