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Obama thanks Native voters

Democratic nominee scores big in Montana and South Dakota

WASHINGTON - Sen. Barack Obama pulled out big wins in Indian country in Montana and South Dakota, which helped him to become the presumptive Democratic nominee for president June 3.

;'The Indian vote definitely contributed to our victory,'' said Matt Chandler, a spokesman for the Obama campaign's Montana efforts. ''We performed a lot of Native American outreach here throughout the campaign, and we think it paid off.''

Chandler said the Illinois senator will continue to focus strongly on getting out the Indian vote in the general election. ''Sen. Obama has for a long time been an advocate for Native Americans. He will absolutely continue paying attention.''

Many political observers correctly predicted that Obama would perform especially well among the Indian population in Montana. Of no small significance was the visit he made to the state's Crow country May 19, during which he was adopted into a tribal family. He also visited the Fort Peck reservation, and has made consistent outreach to tribal leaders and Indian groups throughout the country.

Numbers gathered by the campaign indicate Obama received more than 75 percent of the vote in Big Horn County, in which many Crow and some Northern Cheyenne reside. Chandler added that Obama beat New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in all counties in Montana containing the state's reservations. Overall, the senator from Illinois garnered 56 percent of Montana's vote, compared to 41 percent for Clinton.

''We were lucky to have the support of many tribal leaders with the Crow and Fort Peck reservations,'' Chandler said. According to the Montana secretary of state, the state's seven Indian reservations are home to only about 8 percent of the population, but typically produce 20 percent of the vote in Democratic primaries.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a state legislator and a councilman for the Chippewa-Cree Tribe, said that the votes from Montana's Indian country ''would have made the difference'' for Obama had the race ended up being closer between him and Clinton.

''Native Americans were front and center for Barack,'' said Windy Boy, who noted that Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, lost his seat by less than 4,000 votes after American Indian leaders criticized him for taking money from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff in 2006.

While Obama lost South Dakota 55 percent to 45 percent to Clinton, he was still much more popular than her among Natives, winning all eight counties in the state with significant American Indian populations. In Shannon County, home to the Pine Ridge reservation, he won 52 percent of the vote; in Todd County, home to the Rosebud Sioux reservation, he won 63 percent.

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Turnout in the counties that contain Pine Ridge and Rosebud was substantially lower than the overall Democratic turnout in the state, despite several visits by the Clinton campaign in May. In Shannon County, about 27 percent of registered Democrats made it out to the polls, while in Todd County, 32 percent of registered Democrats turned out. Overall turnout among Democrats in South Dakota was about 50 percent.

Clinton herself had campaigned at Pine Ridge in the days leading up to the primary, and former President Clinton made several unprecedented stops on South Dakota reservations this campaign season. Still, most tribal leaders in the state endorsed Obama.

Both Shannon and Todd counties have been instrumental to Democrats in recent statewide general election campaigns. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson had been losing his 2002 re-election bid until late returns from Shannon County placed him ahead of his Republican challenger by a scant 524 votes. And Democratic Sen. John Kerry won the county with 85 percent of the vote in 2004, which was his best county performance in the nation.

American Indians are the largest minority group in the state, comprising approximately 8.5 percent of the population.

Many political observers had long believed the Clintons to be invincible in South Dakota Indian country. But Kalyn Free, founder of the political organization Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN's List, thinks that title now belongs to Obama.

''There's a sea change going on in America, and I believe that Sen. Obama is the catalyst. I think that he's touching the hearts and souls of Indian people in a new and different way.''

Free is one of four Native superdelegates who have pledged their support for Obama. She is in the process of planning a tribal forum to take place in New Mexico this summer, which Obama has pledged to attend.

Clinton was expected to concede the primary to Obama June 7.

Former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell hailed the role of the Indian vote in the presidential campaign thus far, and he believes it will continue to be noteworthy when Obama likely faces his Republican challenger, presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain, in November.

''There's no question about it [that the Native American vote] made the difference,'' Campbell said. ''All three candidates - Obama, Clinton and McCain - all have pretty strong records on helping Indian people. McCain much more so than the other two, but he's been there a lot longer, and was chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

''Indians know how important they are. They're recognizing that in about five or six states, they can be the margin of difference. When you follow the domino effect, they are realizing that they can really change history. And they have.''