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'Prez on the Rez' connects tribal leaders, presidential candidates

'A meeting that has been put off for 200 years'

CABAZON, Calif. - History was made when the Morongo Band of Mission Indians hosted the first-ever ''Prez on the Rez'' forum Aug. 23.

The event provided a platform for Democratic Party presidential candidates to tell about 300 tribal leaders and guests how they will perpetuate the Native agenda, if elected. In turn, select tribal leaders asked candidates questions on some hot-button issues. Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock and editor of the editorial page at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, served as the event's moderator.

The historic event took place at the Morongo Event Center and was held in conjunction with the Indigenous Democratic Network (INDN's List) Campaign Camp, Aug. 20 - 25.

Out of the eight top Democratic candidates, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel attended the event. Morongo Chairman Robert Martin said Prez on the Rez was long overdue. ''The way we saw it, the concept of Prez on the Rez was to finally hold a meeting that has been put off for 200 years,'' he said.

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards - considered the top three contenders for the Democratic ticket - turned down the invitation and received criticism from the media and INDN's List organizers.

Richardson said during his speech that he was the first to accept the invitation and it was ''negative and embarrassing'' that the remaining Democratic candidates failed to commit to the event.

''I always felt like Native American issues are a part of Bill Richardson,'' he said.

Richardson promised that if elected he would add a cabinet department for Native American affairs, implement a national health care program while improving IHS and support tribal sovereignty.

Kucinich said he would take measures to bridge the gap between Native and non-Native people, but did not go into detail on how he would implement programs during his speech.

''There are so many hearts that are waiting for a president that they can connect with,'' he said. ''Let us gather as leaders around the campfire and talk about how we can do it.''

Gravel encouraged Natives to invest in wind energy. He also criticized the government for the war in Iraq and the war on drugs. ''Nobody in a position of leadership is doing anything about the war on drugs,'' he said.

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Near the end of his speech, Gravel said that he would sign an executive order that would free Leonard Peltier, which garnered a loud applause from the audience.

Tribal leaders asked the candidates questions on a variety of issues such as fishing rights, domestic violence, lack of Native representation in the judicial system, and trust reform issues.

Montana Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, Chippewa-Cree, asked Kucinich if the federal government should use the one-quarter blood quantum requirement to determine eligibility for federal programs. Windy Boy added that he believes the government should follow each tribe's blood quantum rules to be used as the determining factor for all federal programs.

Kucinich agreed and said that if he is elected, he would write an executive order to change the requirements.

In addition to Prez on the Rez, Natives interested in pursuing political careers attended the weeklong campaign camp. Students were privileged to hear the stories of political leaders, such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Hone Harawira, an elected member of the New Zealand Parliament, representing the indigenous Maori Party.

Kalyn Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is the founder of INDN's List.

The attorney and one-time candidate for the U.S. Congress started the campaign camp in 2005 to encourage and train Natives how to run for a political office.

Free said she was disappointed that more candidates failed to commit to Prez on the Rez, but admitted that she was excited about the support from tribes and volunteers.

''Prez on the Rez was the first building blocks to go forward,'' she said. ''I love it when Indian country comes together in solidarity, and we're going to be able to change the future not only for first Americans, but for all Americans.''

Edward Iron Cloud III, an Oglala Sioux from Porcupine, S.D., and campaign camp student, said that events like Prez on the Rez contribute to strengthening the voice of Native people. ''I believe that we are going after the political power we deserve, and we demand that we make decisions on our own,'' he said.

INDN's List supports Native candidates that are in office and invites elected leaders to coach students and share their campaign experience during the conference.

In 2006, the organization supported 26 candidates from 12 states, representing 21 tribes. Free said 20 of those candidates were elected to office and, out of that number, nine made it into office for the first time.

For more information, call (918) 583-6100 or visit www.indnslist.org.