Presidential election excited and ignited

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WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama wasn’t the only one making history this election year. One of the most exciting developments for many Native Americans in 2008 centered on national politics – and the increasing influence of tribes and Native individuals within the American political process.

Early on, many Indians expressed interest in the presidential campaign for a variety of reasons. Some identified with President-elect Barack Obama because he is a minority, and they felt he would best listen to their concerns. Others felt that Sen. Hillary Clinton’s family history of support for tribes was impressive. And still others liked Sen. John McCain for his past supportive efforts as leader of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Whatever the specific reasons for Native interests, final vote counts tended to show that many in Indian country made it a priority to make it to the polls. In the end, many decided that Obama was a candidate they couldn’t pass up.

Obama’s camp was viewed by many as being the most responsive to Indian concerns, and he ultimately received more support from tribal leaders than Clinton during the Democratic primaries. The candidate himself visited several reservations, and was even adopted under the name “One who helps people throughout the land” by the Crow Nation when he visited there in May.

Obama also worked the ground hard to secure Native votes. A top example of this was his hiring of Wizipan Garriott, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, in June as his First Americans vote director. The job saw Garriott coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts in states with large Native populations nationwide.

Garriott said in a September interview with Indian Country Today that Obama believes strongly in the need for more than a government-to-government relationship with tribes.

“He’s said we need to have a nation-to-nation relationship,” Garriott noted. “We need to move beyond talk of self-determination and move into the talk of nation building. When we talk about consultation, it’s not just about a meeting with tribal leaders – with the federal government saying this is what we’re going to do. Rather, it’s about listening to tribes’ needs, and truly acting on them.”

Indian youth seemed especially engaged by Obama’s words. When ICT attended the Democratic National Convention in August, several young Indians were there to express their support for the former senator from Illinois.

“I’m here to show the world that young Indian people are engaged and care about the future of our country,” Shere Wright, 26, Miss Indian Nations, told ICT at the convention. “Obama has inspired a lot of enthusiasm for many of us.”

Some political observers said that brand of enthusiasm was one big factor that gave Obama an edge in his final campaign against McCain. Even some longtime McCain supporters, including former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, were let down by McCain’s outreach to Natives.

“I spoke to Sen. McCain personally four different times during the campaign to see if he would meet with Indian leaders,” Nighthorse Campbell told ICT in a post-Election Day interview.

“Each time, he assured me he wanted to and he would. But then when I would call his scheduler and his staff people, they absolutely locked Indian people out. They wouldn’t let him meet with them.”

After Obama’s election, many Natives got right to work making sure the next leader of the free world would follow through on his promises to tribes and Indians. At least seven Indians joined his transition team, and tribes and Indian groups have continued to express their hopes for his administration.

By year’s end, many tribal leaders were looking forward to whom Obama would ultimately choose to serve as his Native White House advisor. He made the promise to create and fill this new position several times throughout the course of his campaign.

NCAI noted in a transition document dated Nov. 17 that the White House Senior Advisor to the President for American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes would answer directly to the president’s chief of staff and would be the principal advisor to the president on all matters related to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and Native individuals.

The person in this role would also be the primary contact for tribal governments and Native individuals and would coordinate policy across Congress and the federal departments and agencies.

When Obama announced Dec. 17 that Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., would be his choice to lead the U.S. Department of Interior, he said it would be among his administration’s goals to “finally live up to the treaty obligations that are owed to the first Americans.”