As the final months of the 2008 presidential race unfold, Indian country will determine which of the remaining candidates will best uphold the government-to-government relationship with tribes as the next president of the United States.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, has by far the longest and most involved history with tribes, representing one of the more Indian-populated states in the country. As a two-term chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, his long-standing position on the necessity to improve Indian economic and social conditions is well documented.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has a strong history with tribes, most notably as first lady. As the junior senator from New York, a state with a strong Indian population, she continues to show an interest in Indian affairs.
Over the past few months, Sen. Barack Obama has vastly improved his campaign position on Indian issues, inspiring many within Indian country to support this relative newcomer to national politics.
If tribal governments were any other kind of entity in the United States, a smart strategy would be to participate in the political process surrounding a presidential race. Even with the advent of campaign finance reform, presidential elections still offer opportunities for individuals and entities to influence a candidate's position and attempt to secure commitments through, among other things, the contribution of funds to the candidates' political campaigns.
However, tribes presently are under the impression that the candidates have taken a ''no, thank you'' position about accepting tribal contributions to their individual presidential campaigns. This is an impression rather than a known fact because campaigns have refused to go on record about their policies regarding tribal contributions. Repeated requests to each campaign manager and their press offices continue to go unanswered on this simple question: ''What is your official position on accepting political contributions from tribal governments?''
This question is being asked by more and more of our elected officials in Indian country and they deserve an honest answer. We know that the unofficial position is ''No!'' In fact, one candidate recently returned a sizable contribution from a successful gaming tribe and another flatly refuses to accept contributions from any tribal government. Are we not worthy of contributing to these campaigns? Tribes are asking why they are being targeted, as if the money is politically tainted.
The presidential candidates have given myriad reasons for their positions, mainly to dissuade perpetuated debate on the subject matter. But none speaks directly to the issues, or comes close to a justifiable policy position. We've heard rumblings from the political camps of fears of ''attack ad'' retribution between the opponents if they align themselves with revenues derived from legal, organized and well-regulated tribal government enterprises. We've also listened with dismay to the half-hearted explanations that tribes should use those funds to better serve the needs of their communities and not frivolously expend such scarce resources on the political process.
The candidates don't seem to realize how paternalistic this sounds, dictating to us what we should do with our hard-earned and well-managed disposable revenues and actively discouraging us from exercising our rights to participate in the United States' political process.
A few tribes enjoy a level of economic success that provides revenue streams far beyond what is needed to meet essential governmental responsibilities. Indian tribal governments that generate revenues through gaming or other forms of economic success are accountable for satisfying all essential services for their citizens as a first priority. And that is exactly what tribes do. They take care of their governmental responsibilities first and then engage in activities such as politics, venture capitalism and other ''non-essential'' activities that they deem important to their communities.
Those same tribes are attempting to participate in this election cycle by contributing to the candidates of their choice. For the candidates' campaigns to say ''no, we will not accept your contribution'' is nothing more than an unjustified and unacceptable position. And no, it is not acceptable to say that we can contribute as individuals, but not as an entity of free-thinking citizens, who agree on the same set of issues and wish to pool our political influence like any other political entity in the U.S.
The candidates are quick to claim that they understand the unique rights of Indian country and that they respect us as sovereign governments. Then please stop alienating us. We are not the bad guys here. Tribes have fought long and hard to protect their rights as full participants in this country's political process. We know that the Indian vote has had a true impact in several political races over the past few years and we continue to generate larger numbers at the polls each and every election cycle. The candidates should be considering this, if not for their own race, then for their political colleagues vying for election and re-election, where the Indian vote can make the difference.
Many political pundits believe that once the major party conventions are over and we have official candidates in the race for president, the cautionary bar on the acceptance of campaign contributions from tribes may be lifted. And if this prediction is right, tribes may be able to contribute to their favorite candidate for the November general election. I wonder, though, if by then the political damage will have been done and it will be the tribes that say ''no, thank you'' when the candidates come calling.
Leland McGee is president of The Sequoyah Group LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based political, governmental and economic development consulting firm specializing in American Indian and Alaska Native affairs throughout the United States.