PHOENIX, Ariz. - Tribal leaders from around the country jumped on planes and into cars to travel to Phoenix to meet with President Clinton.
Many believed it would be the first time a real dialog between governments would take place. Instead, they found money was the only issue in which organizers of the president's trip to Phoenix were interested, $5,000 from each.
Mamie Rupnicki, chairwoman of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi, was among tribal leaders contacted by the National Indian Gaming Association meeting with President Clinton.
Rupnicki was excited at the prospect of being able to get issues on the table. Her plan and that of other tribal leaders was to let President Clinton know what life was really like in Indian country. But after flying to Phoenix, her excitement turned into anger. What Rupnicki thought would be an actual dialog between governments turned out to be a ruse to get money from her tribe, at a Democratic fundraiser. The price for Rupnicki to talk to President Clinton was $5,000 a plate for a chicken dinner.
Rupnicki flatly refused to pay the $5,000, although she eventually was allowed to attend the luncheon. She described her treatment as disrespectful and shameful. For almost an hour, Rupnicki had to wait outside the room at the Ritz-Carleton while organizers tried to decide what to "do with her."
"It was a big old dog and pony show. Whoever facilitated this function did a lousy job. I had a hell of a time getting in. I told that guy if I was a governor or something and decided I was going to be there, that door would have been thrown open wide, but as Indian leaders we don't get the respect that we should get. It was blatant, blatant disrespect," Rupnicki said.
"They have talked to the blacks, they talk to Hispanics, they talk to women's groups, they talk to the unions, but they won't talk to the tribal leaders. They've never really met with the tribes on a whole to sit down and really talk about our issues that we've got.
"The only time they ever come to tribes is when they want money. The money that they raise from here is just for the ad campaigns that they are going to put on television.
"It took them damn near an hour to get me into this meeting, and my name was supposed to be on a list. It was absolutely chaotic."
Rupnicki, who had been called away from a busy schedule, called the whole trip nothing but a waste of time and money.
Courtland Coleman, executive director of the Democratic National Committee in Arizona, said the state party had nothing to do with the fund-raising luncheon and that he was alarmed at the way tribal leaders had been treated.
"The fund-raising aspect of the luncheon is something that we were not in anyway associated with - the state party - this was done by the Democratic National Committee. However, I would like to formally apologize for the behavior and the miscommunication."
Coleman said he believed the letter sent to tribal leaders by the National Indian Gaming Association was misleading and made him uncomfortable. "It is still not very clear in my opinion what the details are ... it really reads just like a straight invitation. Like kind of 'come out to Phoenix and we'd love to sit down and talk about some of these issues.' It isn't very clear that a contribution is required to attend."
He added he believes he can understand why tribal leaders thought they would have a meeting with the president. "I think, because for the last eight years, American Indians have had a good listener in President Clinton, probably a better listener than they have ever had as far as United States presidents goes, I think it is a very reasonable expectation to believe that if you are invited to a luncheon with the president that you will have a few minutes to speak with him and discuss issues that are important to you."
"We work with our Arizona tribes on a daily basis and we have very good relations there," he said of the state party organization. "This is not something we would have done, a faux pas like this.
"It leaves me with a certain feeling of uneasiness that that was sent out and it wasn't made clear exactly what was expected and that there were these bad feelings left with these tribal leaders," Coleman said.
Rupnicki, still stinging from her treatment, challenged both George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore to meet with tribal leaders and to remember that there are many small tribes throughout the United States which are forgotten by the candidates.
Rupnicki urges all tribes to get out and vote to let the presidential candidates know smaller tribes can come up with a political voice. "I'll invite them right here to come and talk to us in Kansas."