RENO, Nev. - Longtime Republican strongholds in the Midwest and West appear to be up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election, and Native people are emerging as the key swing vote, according to Democratic Party political strategist Celinda Lake. Speaking for the party, Lake has said, ''We cannot win these key battleground states without a turnout in the Indian vote.''
Enter Kalyn Free, Choctaw, who recognized a historic opportunity to make the nation take notice of indigenous people and their issues.
A former Oklahoma district attorney and Justice Department senior counsel, Free founded the Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN's List, in 2005. The Oklahoma-based group recruits, trains and funds Democratic Native candidates; of the 28 it has endorsed for state and local offices, 22 have won their races.
In 2006, Free added nonpartisan INDN's List Education Fund, a nonprofit that draws attention to Indian issues with projects including ''Prez on the Rez,'' a conference during which presidential candidates learn about Indian country; training camps for indigenous candidates and their staffers; and Native American Network, a get-out-the-vote campaign.
Free hopes to secure funding to place NAN in seven 2008 battleground states: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and Wisconsin. She targeted Nevada first because the state's caucuses - Jan. 19 - offer an early opportunity to call attention to the Indian vote.
Nevada's election format also works well with her concept. ''In caucuses, you can have a big effect with a small number of people,'' explained Louis Gray, Osage, INDN's List Education Fund's Nevada state director. ''The last time Nevada caucused, 4,000 people turned out. If we get just 1,000 Indians to the polls, we may represent some 25 percent of the electorate. Then we'll have representatives who go to the state convention and help write the state platform.''
The tasks for Gray and his small staff, who began work in November, are to register Native people, hold ''mock caucuses'' to familiarize new voters with the process and, finally, help people get to the meetings on election day. Caucuses, Gray explained, are one-hour events, during which a voter enters a room and goes to a spot designated for his or her favorite candidate. ''If your candidate does not attract a certain proportion of voters present, other candidates' supporters can lobby you to switch to their corner,'' he said.
NAN has concentrated its voter-registration drive in the 10 communities that have 90 percent of Nevada's on-reservation indigenous population of about 6,500, said Micah Kordsmeier, INDN's List communications director. To boost Indian participation, Gray asked the major parties to hold caucuses in Native communities as well as mainstream ones. The Republican Party did not agree to do so, its state director told Indian Country Today; however, at press time, the Democratic Party was planning to hold caucuses on at least seven reservations, according to Gray.
Lake has lauded NAN. ''What Kalyn Free has done is the perfect combination of national reach and local roots, which can be incredibly powerful in terms of mobilizing these votes,'' she said.
NAN's voter-registration drive has faced many barriers, not the least of which is Nevada's rugged terrain and vast distances. ''There are mountains, canyons and weather to think about,'' Gray said. ''In some areas, it's not legal to drive in winter without chains on your tires.''
Cultural differences are another issue. Krystal Caesar, Pawnee/Kiowa/Wichita/Meskwaki, moved to Nevada from her home state of Oklahoma to sign people up on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, which straddles the Idaho-Nevada border. Though she is indigenous, she is nevertheless regarded as an outsider. ''Higher numbers are coming in from reservations where registration is done by people from the community,'' she said, adding that she is looking forward to being joined by a new NAN staffer, who is enrolled at Duck Valley.
Interference with the registration process has been minimal. When a county clerk told one organizer that her activities were illegal, the organizer contacted Gray. ''I called the clerk and told her that if she interrupts this legal process, I would report her to the attorney general and the FBI,'' Gray said. ''By the end of the conversation, we understood each other.''
Native suffrage has long been a contentious issue. Since receiving citizenship in 1924, Indians have faced continual obstructions to enfranchisement, Daniel McCool, Susan M. Olson and Jennifer L. Robinson write in the first comprehensive look at the issue: ''Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote'' (Cambridge, 2007). The authors report 74 court cases brought between 1965 and 2006 to secure indigenous people the right to vote.
When Indians have gotten to the polls, they've made a difference. In 2000, Maria Cantwell credited indigenous people when she won a U.S. Senate seat from Washington state with a margin of 2,229 votes. Two years later, Tim Johnson retained his seat as a South Dakota senator by 527 ballots, thanks to residents of the state's Lakota and Dakota reservations turning out in force. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico have all courted the Indian vote.
Thanks to Free and her team, the national conversation has already changed. ''The presidential candidates have developed papers on tribal issues early in the game, which is unusual,'' reported Gray.
Free is looking to the future. ''The infrastructure we're building in Nevada will last past January 19th until November 2008 and beyond,'' she said.
For information on voter registration jobs on battleground-state reservations, contact INDN's List Education Fund at (918) 583-6100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.