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Office holders court Native American Caucus

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LOS ANGELES - The first-ever sessions of the American Indian Caucus at the Democratic National Convention attracted the A-list of political figures and delegates who arrived early and stayed late in recognition of the growing power of the unified nations.

Moderated by Indian delegates, the caucus has featured non-Indian speakers.

Who are these American Indian delegates? There are 96 this year, more than ever before, and they are a mix of old-line Indian civil rights fighters and a new generation that benefited from the earlier gains.

Deborah Norris is only 28. She is Navajo and a member of the Arizona Legislature - the first American Indian woman to win a seat in that state house. Norris ran for office when she was only 24 and fresh out of college.

"I had everything going against me. I was a woman, an Indian and I was young, but I was still able to win in a conservative district. It definitely is a new day," she says with a confident smile.

"People asked me if I felt that the Democratic party was using me, you know, as multi-cultural window dressing. But the Democratic Party is fighting for the same things that are in our platform."

Mary V. Thomas, a delegate from Arizona is a member of the Gila River Indian Community and descended from the Hopi and Pima tribes. Thomas is an elder of the Gila River community and former governor.

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Thomas thinks the increased American Indian presence has been the culmination of years of hard won gains.

"We're going to focus on what we've been fighting for all these years. These things are health care for our elders and keeping Social Security vital for the young ones. I'm proud to see our people doing so well," says Thomas.

On this issue of diversity Thomas points to Democratic Party vice presidential nominee Senator Joseph Lieberman, D- Conn., who is Jewish.

"This says a lot about the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is about diversity and they have proved it in their choice of (Senator) Lieberman."

Delegate Frank LeMere, a Winnebago from Nebraska and chairman of the caucus, was moved to tears speaking of the gains made by American Indians. He said he was saddened to think of those who had fought for the day when American Indians would have political clout.

"We have been vigilant and worked hard for 16 years. We are now seeing in Los Angeles the fruits of out labor. I am heartened by the potential that I see here and am truly moved," says LeMere.

Le Mere says he is amazed by the turnout from office holders who have taken the time to address the Native American Caucus despite heavy schedules. He feels that this is a gauge of the Democratic Party and its commitment to American Indians.

"I thank the Creator for bringing the brothers and sisters from the four directions to speak and hear how things can be better for our children and generations to come."