First-ever caucuses rally Native voters
By Wishelle Banks -- Today correspondent
PYRAMID LAKE, Nev. - With Nevada's Jan. 19 presidential caucuses occurring just hours after repeat appearances by both Democratic and Republican candidates, the Silver State's American Indians made history by holding their first-ever reservation-based caucuses. And, just as passionately as candidates Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton stated their cases, the Washo, Paiute and Shoshone nations found their voice, took a stand and held steadfastly onto their sovereignty.
A total of 52 delegates were selected in a dozen caucuses throughout Nevada.
While she'd already decided that by day's end she didn't want the responsibility of officially representing her community, tribal member Genevieve John had a good reason to caucus.
''I've got other commitments, but I did want to make sure that [Clinton] gets our delegates,'' John said amid the chatter. Her friend, Joanne Shaw, said the caucus - a word originating from the Algonquin language - served as a catalyst for dialogue, decision-making and rallying the American Indian vote.
''I think it's great that they're holding it here, and I'm surprised at the number of people that we have,'' said Shaw, as caucus chairman Tracey Wells facilitated the proceedings.
On the ''Issues'' button of his Web site, Democratic underdog former Sen. John Edwards has messages to disabled Americans, veterans and every ethnic group in the land - except American Indians. At a press conference at the Carpenters Hall in Reno two days earlier, Edwards side-stepped questions about that gaping oversight, about Cobell v. Kempthorne and about the potential for long-overdue diplomacy on the federal level.
''The Native American population in this country has been faced with enormous struggles, and in many cases they've been taken advantage of,'' acknowledged Edwards, without responding specifically to the question of whether he would issue to American Indians a formal apology for past atrocities - similar to those received by every other ethnic minority group in the United States - should he be elected president. ''When I talk about poverty, when I talk about two public school systems, when I talk about the lack of jobs, the lack of economic opportunity, when I talk about the two Americas - there is no better example of that than the Native American community.''
Conversely, and with former President Bill Clinton's history of human rights victories and outreach to Natives as a decent example, Hillary Clinton has wisely ventured into meetings with some tribes. Such sage decisions sit well with John and Shaw's colleague, Florinda Bender, who also happens to be their precinct's Democratic captain.
''I think it's a good start,'' Bender noted. ''I haven't really seen that from the other candidates. We had a lot of support from Bill Clinton when he was president, so I think that she'll really come through for us.''
Dependability, unity and sovereignty are the forces that drive Louis Gray, an Osage from Oklahoma who works for INDN's List Education Fund, a non-partisan organization that's fueling the American Indian Democratic vote in this election year. Savoring a frybread just after the caucus wrapped up at the Pyramid Lake High School in Nixon (Precinct 7423), Gray spoke of the cause, the good fight and why it matters so much.
''I've been involved in politics since I was a little boy,'' explained Gray, adding that our endeavors are ''for the generations ahead of us. We can't do anything about the past, but we can take care of today and work on tomorrow. My dad used to be a tribal council member, and he always taught us that people can make a difference - if they participate. In his famous words, 'They're not counting on you participating, so you'll always be a surprise; and you can really make a difference in people's lives by participating in the process, not only fighting for candidates, but for what you believe in.'''
Four years ago, Native voters were forced to make the half-hour drive to caucus in Reno; so identifying and selecting precincts right on the reservation this time around was a victory in itself. But developments at another tribal village, Sutcliffe (Precinct 7409), seemed more like one step forward and two steps back.
''This was not the way we wanted it to go up at Sutcliffe,'' Gray stressed. ''We had [about] 19 people up there voting, and two non-Indians. And the two non-Indians ended up being the delegates. We told [the
people], 'This is your community, and you should run as delegates.' But the [non-Indians] were very aggressive, and they ended up being the delegate and the alternate.''
Internal progress for America's Indian tribes is the key to establishing and maintaining external communication with the next commander in chief, Gray believes.
''We're at the point where we're insisting that [interaction] happens,'' he explained. ''[INDN's List] wants to change ... how Indians participate in the process. No more are we gonna sit back and say, 'All right, develop your plan for Indians - on the back end, once you're already elected. We want to know what you're doing on the front end, and tell us at the beginning of the race, not the end, why we should be supporting you. We don't want you to put lawyers on some task force that doesn't ever meet. We want you to come to Indian country, look an Indian in the eye and tell them why they should vote for you.'
''That process hasn't happened yet - but we're getting close.''
Results from Nevada's caucuses
While Sen. Hillary Clinton received the substantial number of delegates in the Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses, Sen. Barack Obama considered victory his, winning one national convention delegate more than Clinton, and 11 of the state's 17 counties.
The Democratic Party selected a total of 33 total delegates, with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Clinton claimed 5,355 delegates (51 percent), Obama had 4,773 (45 percent) and former Sen. John Edwards 396 delegates (4 percent), according to www.cnn.com.
According to The Associated Press, Obama and Clinton have requested a comprehensive review of Nevada's caucus results, following reports of ''widespread intimidation tactics'' by supporters at caucus sites in southern Nevada - a state that will provide five electoral votes in the election process.
Statistics for the Republican Party's representation in Nevada's American Indian communities are elusive at best. Indian country's treatment by Republican presidential administrations contributes substantially to the impossible-to-gauge percent of Native Republicans, both across the state and nationwide. In Nevada, though, the GOP triumphed with Mitt Romney's 22,649 delegates (51 percent), Ron Paul with 6,087 (14 percent) and John McCain's 5,651 delegates (13 percent), according to www.cnn.com.