To paraphrase political comic Jon Stewart, host of cable television’s “The Daily Show,” we at Indian Country Today are experiencing an odd feeling known as – and forgive us if we mispronounce it – hope. Literally overnight, power in Congress has completely shifted toward the left, which, in our estimation, brings the balance just slightly more to the center after six years of increasing devotion to extreme right-wing conservatives. It appears citizen activism is alive and well, and that voices of dissent can indeed be heard clearly at the highest levels of government. No matter the winner or loser, we see an opportunity ripe for strengthening Indian sovereignty amid this changing political climate.
There is only so much weight one side of the balance can hold before momentum takes over, and it tips. The midterm elections signaled a dramatic turn of events for the embattled Republican Party, which has enjoyed nearly limitless partisan freedom in the White House and Congress during President Bush’s two terms.
It is difficult to look at the national issues and not feel a bit of relief that perhaps the country is heading in a “new direction,” to use the new catchphrase of the practically giddy Democrats. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has resigned, becoming another victim of his vastly unpopular Iraq war. While we support our brothers and sisters who are fighting this war, many in Indian country fail to see the good in invading a sovereign land, comprised of tribal peoples with ancient conflicts, to spread American political ideals.
In South Dakota, voters narrowly rejected a ballot measure that would have sustained a strict ban on abortion, legislation in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing the practice. The issue spurred controversy at Pine Ridge, stirred by former Oglala Sioux Tribal President Cecelia Fire Thunder, over abortion rights. Fire Thunder ignited a debate when she countered the ban by offering her own land on which to put up a women’s health clinic that would offer abortions among its services.
As a matter of course, the mass media separated public discourse into pro-choice and anti-abortion camps, severely limiting opportunities for deeper understanding of the larger issues involved. Not so in Indian country. We heard passionate arguments about sovereignty, colonization, family and community rebuilding, and even traditional medicine practices. During this dialogue, there were no celebrations of abortion; the practice itself is not widely accepted in Indian country. But the issue of national, state and tribal authority – even over women’s bodies – affects who we are as people indigenous to this land.
Urging American Indian women to vote at an election rally, Fire Thunder and Crow Creek Sioux scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn voiced strong opinions against the ban. “In our culture, children are sacred,” stated Fire Thunder in response to anti-abortion critics, “but women are sacred, too.” Cook-Lynn reminded us of the horrors of past reproductive rights abuse, when Indian women were sterilized without consent. Perhaps their pleas to protect tribal sovereignty tipped the balance at the South Dakota ballot boxes.
In another Republican loss, popular Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, felt the impact of the Indian vote. His strong connection with tribes, and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, may have finally reached its tipping point – according to polls, 40 percent of voters said ethics and corruption issues were very important to them. Many credit the Indian turnout, fortified by the National Congress of American Indians’ Native Vote 2006 campaign, for his defeat in the tight race. Burns directed $238 million in federal funds to Montana’s tribes in his 18 years in the Senate (he chaired the Interior Department Appropriations Committee). But his association with Abramoff may have proved too much to bear for proud, loyal constituents.
Indian voices are being heard on a national level. The perspectives and contributions of indigenous people are being felt. It is difficult to look out at Indian country and label anyone a Democrat or Republican, or to know whether they vote at all. But it is imperative that we continue to develop a platform that supports Indian country and its principles, and from which we voice support for issues that affect our families and communities.