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McCain Natives push back on Palin criticisms

WASHINGTON – Indian supporters of Sen. John McCain’s quest for the presidency are fighting back on charges against his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, that have rocketed through Indian country in recent days.

One of the main anti-Palin materials, a document co-produced by lawyer Heather Kendall-Miller, is being labeled as “partisan hackery” by some McCain supporters. The document includes allegations that the governor has been harmful to Alaska Natives on a range of issues, including subsistence fishing and hunting, tribal sovereignty and language support.

Kendall-Miller told Indian Country Today that she felt it was “important to pop [Palin’s] balloon” and said she doesn’t believe Todd Palin, the governor’s Yup’ik husband, really identifies as Alaska Native. She added, too, that she is an informal adviser to the Obama campaign in Alaska.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee activist, has also taken credit for vetting the anti-Palin document. She is listed on Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign Web site as a prominent Indian supporter of his campaign.

The Obama camp, too, seems keen on fanning the flames surrounding the Alaska governor. When asked whether Palin might have the ability to siphon Native voters away from supporting Obama, campaign spokesman Shin Inouye offered the following statement: “Senators Obama and Biden will give voters the change we need, including changes that will help tribal nations. John McCain and Sarah Palin simply offer to continue the failed legacy of the Bush administration. The choice for First American voters could not be any clearer.”

In response to the document and Kendall-Miller’s statements, a member of the American Indians for McCain Coalition told ICT that Kendall-Miller “obviously has an axe to grind.”

“She’s playing a bit of a political game with a popular governor,” said the Republican political observer, who asked not to be identified. “And she’s misleading American Indians, trying to make them believe that Palin is some kind of she-devil.”

Other Republican Natives said it was interesting that the Kendall-Miller document was released unsigned to blogs, news outlets and e-mail.

They wondered whether the Native American Rights Fund, the legal organization for which Kendall-Miller works, had any hand in the production of the document, which they said could be a violation of the governmental rules surrounding its nonprofit status.

Kendall-Miller was adamant that NARF had nothing to do with the production of the document. In fact, she said “bring it on” to criticisms from Republicans about her research and writings.

“I have to be careful because I work for a nonprofit – I don’t want to mix what I do, in any way. That’s the kind of dirty tricks the Republicans do – they come back and try to shut down my employer.”

Beyond the partisan squabbles surrounding the document, Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said there are many Alaska Natives who have counterpoints to the arguments brought up by Native Obama critics of Palin.

“There are two sides to the coin,” she said, adding that its NCAI’s position to stay neutral on the candidates, since the organization will have to work closely with whatever administration is ultimately elected.

The governor proclaimed June 10 – 13, 2007, as “National Congress of American Indians Days” in recognition of a conference held by NCAI in Anchorage and has attended some of the organization’s events, according to Johnson.

Ken Johns, president of the Ahtna Inc. Alaska Native Corporation, said that many Alaska Natives with whom he has spoken since Palin became the GOP’s vice presidential pick are strongly supportive of her candidacy.

Johns, a McCain supporter, said it’s important to remember that Palin is the leader of the state of Alaska. “As part of her duties, it is her job to try to protect states’ rights,” he said. “As Natives, we have to push to be sure our issues are accounted for.”

He said that many of the legal cases surrounding subsistence and sovereignty issues brought up in Kendall-Miller’s document actually took root during former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski’s prior administration.

“She inherited these cases, and I’m not surprised she didn’t just drop them,” Johns said, noting that Palin has been most focused during her short time in office on cleaning up ethics scandals and developing energy proposals for the state.

On the energy front, Johns said he knows that some tribes have expressed concerns about global warming as a result of increased oil development, which Palin supports; but he also said it’s important to realize that some Alaska Native Corporations have made much money for tribal members as a result of their participation in energy projects.

Johns added that he’s angered and saddened by Democratic Natives who have questioned the Yup’ik heritage of the governor’s husband, Todd Palin, and their five children.

“Most of these attacks have come from known Democrats who really are having a hard time with her popularity,” Johns said. “But that’s no reason to play dirty with her family. Get out of the mud. As Natives, we should be better than that garbage.”