WASHINGTON – Enough registered Republicans have gone over to Barack Obama that they’ve earned themselves a signpost on the current presidential campaign highways and byways – Obamacans.
In Indian country, where declared Republicans tend to stand out anyway from the reliably Democratic majority, the ballot box defectors may have a doubly high profile. In any case, the names of only four are enough to turn heads. If Roy Sampsel, Myrna Gardner, Tim Wapato and Billy Mills were to pool their experiences, they could put together a resume of lofty accomplishments in varied fields going back to at least 1962, when Sampsel took part in the campaign that made former GOP Sen. Mark Hatfield Oregon’s first two-term governor.
Choctaw and Wyandotte of Oklahoma by descent, Roy Sampsel has made Northwest tribal resource protection the main theme of his professional career while serving at high-level posts within the Interior Department under presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. Especially under Nixon, “tribal self-determination was something to be more than talked about. ... It was guys with a good heart trying to figure out how to work things out. And we just don’t see that. We haven’t seen that, everyone working together.”
He has always been “a Republican of sorts,” he said; but nowadays, “it’s not the same Republican Party.”
Sampsel hasn’t been a bit pleased with President George W. Bush, but he doesn’t hold him against Republican candidate John McCain. McCain knows Indian issues and wouldn’t be a bad president for tribes, he said. But he won’t bring the reform agenda Sampsel considers essential if tribes are to protect their sovereignty and their resources.
“You can’t get there without recognizing that tribes are sovereign and have their own resources to protect along with the federal government. ... I just really believe that Obama is the person we [tribes] need in there in terms of making significant change in the way programs and resources are treated at the presidential level of the federal government.”
Sampsel has been outspoken for Obama in the Northwest, a role he’ll continue to take on until Election Day, Nov. 4. “I’m actively supporting him. ... Here is a guy who captured change, and with that an understanding of the sincere trust and treaty obligations that the government has toward tribes.”
At present the president and CEO of Kakivik Asset Management in Anchorage, Alaska, Myrna Gardner has forged an executive career in business, raised three children and served on the Local Boundary Commission, a constitutional body of considerable significance within Alaska. As Gov. Sarah Palin’s supporters for vice president on the John McCain ticket have reminded Indian country, executive experience in the late-formed, still-frontier-like state, with its thicket of regulatory jurisdictions and its national resource issues, its energy industry and its Alaska Native Corporations and villages, is a rival for executive experience anywhere.
But Gardner isn’t backing McCain. “My party is no longer a party of a mass group of people, but a party of a select few. By that I mean Halliburton [the oil field services corporation, still associated with Vice President Dick Cheney] and a few like that.”
Gardner grew up in a Tlingit and Haida household, her father a staunch Republican and her mother a Democrat. They had their arguments around the dinner table but they all continued to eat together as a family. She has noticed a distinct decline in similar public willingness to reach agreement and share the pie, as the tactics of fear have gained ground after eight years of the sitting presidential administration. “I just don’t like that: running the country on fear and bullying. I can’t support that any longer.”
But Obama isn’t simply the alternative, she said. “He’s shown me a difference.” She traces the difference to an educational and pedagogical background steeped in constitutional law. If Obama is elected, she added, “America will get an open mind as to what is right. The Republican Party is more like, ‘No, this is right.’ It’s about winning. ... If you believe in following the law, then we have a chance to be a great country again.” Civil rights for the races, women and have-nots, tolerance of other religious views and other nations will follow from the observance of constitutional law, Gardner is confident.
None too soon for her in the Republican stronghold state. “This is an unforgiving state if you cross the line ... a small state ... a small business world. It [supporting Obama] was an easy decision to make, but a hard one to talk about up here.”
Tim Wapato, of the Colville Confederated Tribes, has had an executive leadership role in the advancement of tribal fishing rights and protections; bison recovery; and, as inaugural executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, in tribal gaming from its infancy (actually, half a billion dollars in annual revenue for the industry seemed pretty good in 1993, Wapato said; but the figure stood at $7 billion five years later, when the pace of travel led him to step down for health reasons). President Reagan appointed him U.S. commissioner for the Pacific Salmon Commission, overseeing international treaty fishing between the United States and Canada; the senior President Bush installed him as executive director of the Administration for Native Americans in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Presidential appointments are solid GOP credentials. But Wapato joined the Independent ranks in 2000, and after eight years of President George W. Bush he doesn’t regret it. “There’s hardly any support [in Congress], other than John McCain and a few others, for tribal rights.”
But he won’t be voting McCain for president. He has given a long look to Barack Obama, his advisers on Indian country and his Indian policy. “It’s good.”
He and A. Gay Kingman, his wife and working partner from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, still attend some NIGA conferences and the occasional event, such as her honoring at a Native women’s luncheon in Washington last winter. But since a stroke slowed him down in 2000, Wapato tends to steer clear of meetings. “I don’t go because it’s a production to get me there.”
That hasn’t kept him from lobbying for Obama by telephone. He is concerned that some Indians support Obama for the wrong reason, civil rights, based on his black ancestry. “The right reason is to strengthen and support tribal governments and sovereignty, and to hold up the federal side of the treaty obligations.”
Wapato is confident that Obama understands the distinction.
Even under present conditions, with sports events available on television at seemingly all hours of every day, one of the most compelling athletic moments anywhere can be found on grainy video from 44 years ago, readily viewable on the Internet.
Billy Mills, beating the odds to even compete in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, came from a nowhere land of lapped runners to overtake the overwhelming favorite in a sprint to the finish line. He remains the only American gold medalist in the event and the only American Indian gold medalist. His online Wikipedia entry said that his victory is held by many to be the greatest upset in sports history. His Oglala Lakota people – and most everyone else, for that matter – never tire of his speeches on an underdog’s inspiration.
But as Democrat Barack Obama pulls ahead in the polls, the lifelong Republican will not be helping John McCain come from behind. Mills remains a Republican. He has never endorsed McCain, so he’s not abandoning him; he still has loyalties toward him, still considers him a good senator and a great warrior. But as a Marine himself in the Vietnam era, Mills learned from an old vet to “separate the war from the warrior.”
He believes the time has come for talk, diplomacy and statesmanship among nations. The stare-downs of the past won’t work now, if they ever worked then – which, he adds for good measure, they didn’t. “The problems of the past will not necessarily be solved by the experiences or ... the processes of the past.”
For Mills, Obama represents change, a better chance for the underdog, not because he said it but because Mills felt it. “I felt more than he spoke.”
People today have problems with Obama, others have problems with McCain; still others had problems with other candidates. But long before Obama announced his presidential candidacy, Mills felt that Obama could understand why American Indians are frustrated with all of the above. “I think it was the first time in my adult life that I could feel proud to be an American without a flashback to the shame and the wrongs of our past.”
Obama’s 21st century leadership qualities first attracted Mills. “He has the vision capability to empower those who want to empower themselves – their chance will be enhanced.”
His Indian-specific policies were also spot-on for Mills, especially his promises to appoint a senior adviser to liaison with tribes and to conduct annual White House summit meetings with tribal leaders. “That was the first time in my life I could see us having a voice,” he said, contributing seriously to “intelligent and adaptive programs of change” that come direct from tribal leaders to the president.
A voice in the White House would not provide tribes with more power than anyone else, he said, but just with some. “It levels the playing field and would empower all of America.”
Obama has only opened a door, he added, without promising results. Tribal leaders will have to be accountable for those. But crucially, they’ll have a forum. They’ll have a place to articulate for the president priorities that might include making Indian law a bar exam subject in all 50 states or nominating a Native person to the Supreme Court, again to the benefit not only of American Indians but of all Americans.
“The challenge Obama is opening up for us ... is to do our part to make America better.”