Palin pick adds new Indian dimension to presidential race

DENVER - By the close of the Democratic National Convention, many Indian attendees seemed confident that Sen. Barack Obama would be the best pick in terms of advancing Native issues. But just hours after Obama wrapped up his historic acceptance speech; Sen. John McCain threw out a curve ball by selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin, the first female Republican vice presidential candidate, is married to Todd Palin, who is of Yup;ik Eskimo descent. He works for an oil field and is a fisherman and champion snowmobiler. Their five children are also of Alaska Native heritage.

When Palin was running for governor in October 2006, she wrote a letter addressed to rural voters, saying she ''so very much appreciates Alaska's First People, their proud heritage and diverse cultures so abundant in the communities throughout our state.''

Alaska contains more than 225 of the 560-plus federally-recognized tribes in the U.S.

''I personally feel the language, stories, and traditions of Alaska Native cultures are a national treasure to be nourished and held close to our hearts,'' Palin added. ''It is our rural lifestyle and diverse cultural heritage that distinguishes Alaska from the rest of the world and makes it our wonderful home.''

She wrote, too, that her family has been ''blessed'' by learning Yup'ik traditions and stories from Helena Andree, her children's great-grandmother and a one-time Bristol Bay Native Corporation Elder of the Year. The Palins named their oldest daughter ''Bristol'' in honor of the region many of their family members still call home.

Palin also promised to support tribal economic development and fishing subsistence issues, noting that her family has fished commercially in Bristol Bay for decades.

In terms of education policy, Palin said she supports teaching traditional culture and languages in schools. ''A strong sense of identity will keep kids in school until they become strong adults equipped to thrive in today's world,'' she wrote.

Also of note, the governor proclaimed June 10-13, 2007 as ''National Congress of American Indians Days'' in recognition of a conference held by NCAI in Anchorage.

When asked if Republicans thought Palin will be an asset in getting out Native voters for the senator from Arizona, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds offered the following statement to Indian Country Today: ''John McCain has a strong record of working with the tribes, and Gov. Palin will be a strong partner in his mission of reforming Washington.''

Like McCain, Palin is known as a maverick reformer, and has cracked down on political corruption within her own party.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many attendees at the DNC were unconvinced that Palin's husband's Native heritage was a strong enough reason to change their support from Obama.

Matt Tomaskin, a member of the Yakama Nation who attended all four days of the Democratic convention, said that Todd Palin is ''kind of a distant two degrees from the main line.''

''I think it would be a different story if the governor herself was tribal,'' Tomaskin said, adding that he didn't think the McCain camp purposely picked a vice president who might be attractive to some Native voters.

''It's probably just an afterthought [for the McCain camp] that her husband is Indian,'' Tomaskin said. ''To me, it's a non-issue. I can't see tribal members running to the polls just because her husband is tribal.''

Some Indians and tribal advocates from Alaska have been critical of Palin's policies involving Alaska Natives, saying she cares more about energy development than environmental reform that would protect tribes in coastal regions.

Other Native Obama supporters said Palin might indeed be a good advocate for Indian issues on the national level, but said they had more confidence in positive changes for tribes under an Obama administration. They also noted that in her two years in office, the governor has not appointed any Native people to high-ranking positions within her administration.

Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, said he doubts Palin's ability to effectively influence the Indian vote.

''I think that Sen. McCain picked her for a couple of reasons, probably neither related to the Indian vote: First, she is very far to the right on social and economic issues and second she is anti-abortion/pro-life and both positions mean she enjoys a great deal of support from the religious right,'' said Shepro.

Since the governor's initial campaign letter focused on Natives, Shepro said the governor has offered relatively little public comment on tribes. Some Indians and tribal advocates have been critical of her silence, especially given her Native family ties.

Also drawing criticism, Palin opposed an initiative to stop development of the Pebble Mine adjacent to the Bristol Bay fishing grounds, which is a prime area for both commercial and subsistence salmon fishing.

''Her public position on that issue undoubtedly had an effect on the defeat of that initiative, an initiative supported by many of the region's Inupiat and Yup'ik Alaska Natives,'' Shepro said.

Palin also concerned some Indians in July when she abruptly fired Walt Monegan, the first Alaska Native public safety commissioner in the state. The governor said she wanted to take the Department of Public Safety in a different direction, but a Republican rival said Monegan was fired because he refused to take action against state trooper Mike Wooten, who was recently divorced from Palin's younger sister.