Presidential candidates may meet with tribes

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PHOENIX, Ariz. - What may become an historic event in politics for Indian country could bring the presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush together in a forum in front of more than 1,000 American Indian leaders.

The organization of this event has been quietly taking place for a few months because for many years American Indians have considered themselves out of the loop on political matters. Yet, every election has a profound affect on Indian country when budgets are planned and some Congressmen have been accused of undermining sovereignty through Indian country.

The National Indian Gaming Association is organizing the forum, even though gaming issues are not the only ones facing tribal leaders, said Jacob Coin, executive director of NIGA.

"No president of the United States or anyone seeking such office can respond to our needs or honor and respect our Indian Nations' sovereignty without an honest and open exchange with our tribal leaders," Coin said.

"The range of issues to address is quite a bit larger than gaming. There are health issues, law enforcement, education and intergovernmental issues," he said.

The tentative forum dates are June 20, July 3 and 5. As of press time neither candidate had agreed to any of those dates, nor have they ruled out attending the forum. The meeting, at a location to be announced, will be nationally televised. Phoenix television station KPNX-TV, an NBC affiliate, presented the idea to NBC and its cable partner MSNBC. Coin said negotiations are underway to find a moderator.

Representatives from the 558 federally recognized tribes have been invited to the gathering and will have the opportunity to ask questions of the two candidates.

"This is a chance for Americans to see First Americans and to let their story be told by them," said Loretta Avent, former White House liaison to Indian country and an organizer for the event. She said she hoped the candidates would accept the invitation out or respect.

What might attract the candidates is the vast amount of money the gaming industry has provided to tribes. Many wealthier tribes have been known to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to campaigns and, in California, the tribes affected legislation spending millions of dollars to pass Prop 5 and more recently Prop 1A that revolutionized gaming in the state.

Coin said members of NIGA wouldn't hold back when it comes to using the resources available to them.

This forum will also give tribes a chance to question Bush on statements he made last fall while campaigning in New York state. It could be a winning situation if he can explain his comments or a loss if he fails to change. Many tribal people were angered by the statement he made to the Syracuse (N.Y.) Post Standard when he said, "My view is that state law reigns supreme when it comes to Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue." The forum will not be used to bash Bush, Coin said.

For tribes clinging to sovereignty and a government-to-government relationship with the federal government, and for those with treaties with the federal government, that statement rang the bell that called tribal leaders into action. They said that Bush not only overlooked the treaties, but bypassed Supreme Court decisions and executive orders that at times supersede state wishes.

But Bush is contributing to the poverty of Indian country, claims Keller George, president of the United South and Eastern Tribes. "When Indian tribes have nothing, people like Bush are comfortable. It is when we get money and success and begin to work together that he is threatened by us."

Bush opposes gaming and calls it a false economy, staff members said. The state of Texas sued the Tigua Tribe over a gaming operation the state claims is illegal. The case is on appeal.

"Our position has been that this is a perfect opportunity to work with him so he can more adequately understand the relationship between tribes and the federal government," Coin said.

Gore, on the other hand, may see a friendlier crowd because of his connection to the Clinton administration. President Clinton is the only president in history to make official visits to two reservations during his term in office.

He promoted his New Market Initiatives on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in July of 1999 and on the Navajo Reservation in April 2000. Pine Ridge is also a recipient of the Empowerment Zone grant. On the Navajo Reservation, Clinton promoted his digital divide program that will provide wiring of the entire Navajo Reservation to allow access to the Internet.