Obama’s First Americans vote director assesses Election ’08

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WASHINGTON – Wizi Garriott, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was hired by the Obama campaign for president in June as the senator’s First Americans vote director. Indian Country Today recently caught up with him for an interview from the busy campaign trail.

Indian Country Today: With so many tribes, has it been difficult to reach out to individual Indians to help them understand Sen. Barack Obama’s positions on Indian issues?

Wizi Garriott: Obviously it poses somewhat of a challenge, but I think that Sen. Obama has done a good job at having a presence in Indian country – and people who are his surrogates and who support him have done a very good job at getting his message out. ... We’ve seen that his message really is resonating with people, and that Indian people are excited about his candidacy.

ICT: Why do you think so many tribal leaders have come out in support of Obama, including, just recently, the Navajo Nation council?

Garriott: I think there are a few reasons. One, of course, he is a very unique candidate and, I think, we as Indians really identify with him. He grew up in a single-parent household; his grandparents helped to raise him; he didn’t grow up with much wealth; and he knows what it’s like to struggle personally. For a lot of us in Indian country, that’s how we grew up. That’s our reality.

I think also, he’s the type of person who really listens. He doesn’t go in wanting to preach to tribal leaders about what he thinks should be done – he listens to Indian people and is willing to ask, “What are your ideas; what are your needs; how can we fix the government?”

Many in Indian country consider his platform to be the most progressive presidential platform we’ve seen in history when it comes to Indians.

ICT: How was Sen. Obama able to craft such a platform?

Garriott: One thing that has really helped is that he’s surrounded himself with a number of close advisers, including [former Democratic] Sen. Tom Daschle [from South Dakota] and others, who have helped explain the importance of Indian issues to him, and have helped to mentor him in that area.

One of the specific issues that he wants to stress is the need to have more than a government-to-government relationship. He’s said we need to have a nation-to-nation relationship. We need to move beyond talk of self-determination and move into the talk of nation building. When we talk about consultation, it’s not just about a meeting with tribal leaders – with the federal government saying this is what we’re going to do. Rather, it’s about listening to tribes’ needs, and truly acting on them.

The other big point that he emphasizes is treaty obligations. He said it himself: Treaties are paramount law. Tribes should not have to be spending all of their time in Washington, walking the halls of Congress and trying to get meetings with the administration, fighting for money that is in resources that is theirs by treaty rights and trust obligations. ...

ICT: Many Indians are excited about Sen. Obama’s pledge to set up a White House liaison to tribes and Indians. How will he go about setting up such a position?

Garriott: My understanding is that he wants to make it a senior position. ... I don’t quite know what the specifics would be, but the senator’s position is that in recent administrations, they have had a person in the Intergovernmental Affairs department at the White House who is supposed to work on Indian issues – but that doesn’t have a lot of teeth to it.

What we really need is someone who can bring national attention to our issues, and someone who has the direct ear of Barack. ... Our issues go across all departments, not just the BIA. There needs to be a person who can help carry that message to other departments and who can work with tribes. ...

ICT: That seems like a pretty common-sense idea, yet this hasn’t happened in the past. Why do you think it hasn’t?

Garriott: I think that in the current administration, something like that would never even be a possibility. No one would ever even conceive of that idea. We see how this administration has treated Indian country. They’ve cut funding for vital programs across the board – cuts to IHS, et cetera. Indian country really feels that it has had no access to the White House. ... Tribes haven’t really had any meaningful meetings with President Bush. ...

ICT: Has it been difficult to run against Sen. John McCain on Indian issues, given his past service on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee?

Garriott: When Indian country is able to see who Barack is as a person and how they identify with him personally, and also what he plans to do when he becomes president, the choice becomes clear. ... When you look at the record of McCain, yes, he has done some good things for Indian country, but how could you not when you have more than 20 tribes in your state and you sit on the Indian Affairs committee? You’d be forced in many instances to cast the right vote. ... When it’s convenient, John McCain may cast the right vote; but when it’s inconvenient, he’ll tow the party line every time.

ICT: Have you thought at all about the fact that Sen. Obama doesn’t have a whole lot of past experience in terms of a voting record on Indian issues?

Garriott: I think that it comes down to leadership. We’ve seen time and time again where McCain just hasn’t shown leadership. He was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, but he could not get the Indian Health Care Improvement Act passed in a Republican-controlled Senate, a Republican-controlled House and a Republican president. Where has the leadership been?

Barack has been out on the forefront. Yes, it’s true, there are no federally recognized tribes from his home state [of Illinois], but when he’s talking about what he wants to do as president, he’s offered strong leadership. ... Also, I think just in general, Democrats have been more attuned to and willing to fight for Indians versus Republicans.

ICT: Have you worried at all that Todd Palin’s Yup’ik familial heritage might sway some Indians to voting for McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin?

Garriott: It comes down to the issues. When you look at the Obama/Biden ticket versus the McCain/Palin ticket, it becomes very clear what their records are and who is best for Indian country. ... If you look at Palin’s record in Indian country, she doesn’t have much of one. Her record in Alaska is very negative and has shown her willing to go against Indian interests. ... If we were to see a McCain/Palin ticket in the White House, I think Indian country would see just how detrimental it is. ... I think, too, they would appoint judges that would limit tribal sovereignty and tribal civic jurisdiction.

ICT: Has the campaign been working to alleviate some barriers to voting for Indians?

Garriott: Indian country has always had barriers, and I think one of the great assets of this campaign is our deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, who has understood the power and importance of the Indian vote in past elections. From the very beginning, he has been a strong advocate in the campaign for having resources poured into Indian country in terms of finances and Native field organizers. ...

For us, the campaign has always been about community empowerment. We’ve tried to put as many resources as possible into Indian communities so we can help our own people organize and empower themselves. That’s what this is all about.

ICT: In how many states do you have specific organizers aimed at getting out the Indian vote?

Garriott: Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan – basically all of the important states with significant amounts of Indian populations.

ICT: Will Indian participation sway the vote in close swing states?

Garriott: For sure. We’ve seen it be very critical in many past elections already. ... And I expect that it could happen again this year.