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Promised Obama-Native event in limbo

WASHINGTON - Scheduling for an event to have Sen. Barack Obama make an appearance before several tribes and Indians has turned problematic.

Before the Illinois senator became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, he made a pledge to Kalyn Free, founder of the Indigenous Democratic Network, that he would appear at a tribally focused town hall-style meeting. Initial logistics of the agreement called on him to speak at a reservation or Indian-owned venue somewhere in the Southwest before the Democratic National Convention in August if he became his party;s candidate.

Obama's verbal promise was seen as key among influential Indian political activists, and it played a factor for some Native individuals who threw their support behind his candidacy. The promise even partially influenced the decision of at least one of the four Native superdelegates who will attend the DNC to cast their votes for him. All four Native superdelegates, including Free, have verbally pledged their support to the senator from Illinois.

Now that Obama has all but secured his party's nomination after a contentious battle throughout the spring with Sen. Hillary Clinton, scheduling the event has become something of a logistical nightmare.

The Obama campaign has told Free that the senator can only provide two weeks' notice regarding when and where he would be able to participate in an Indian-focused event.

Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, has requested a larger window of time - even as short as four weeks - but, to date, the campaign has not been willing to budge. Campaign officials have said that the candidate's time is pressed in the weeks leading up to the convention.

Steve Hildebrand, the deputy campaign manager of Obama's campaign who has been a point person regarding scheduling the event, did not return several requests for comment from Indian Country Today.

Given the two-week provision, Free and other tribal leaders nationwide have expressed concerns that it will be next to impossible to secure a venue, funding, and other logistical planning for the event. They said that with more than 560 federally recognized tribes, the task of getting every tribal leader up to speed so that he or she can attend the event will be daunting in such a short period of time. Many tribal participants would also likely find it hard to arrange travel and lodging accommodations on such short notice.

Free said that some tribal members she's queried about the two-week window have found the Obama campaign's position to be ''disrespectful.'' She also thinks it's important for the event to be held in the summer, since Obama's time will likely be even more pressed after the convention in the time leading up to the November general election.

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Rey Kitchkumme, vice chair of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, is but one of many tribal officials who had been looking forward to the event, but he is now disappointed with the inflexible position of the Obama campaign. He feels the issue is a matter of the Obama campaign needing to be more respectful of tribal operations and governance.

''We hope that his campaign can change their position and provide more notice,'' Kitchkumme said. ''It would be a very good step forward if they could somehow come to the middle and accommodate Indian people who are supporting him.''

Kitchkumme noted that Obama has many supporters in Indian country, and that many would be disappointed if his campaign didn't try to accommodate a schedule that would allow for more tribal participation.

Jim Gray, principal chief of the Osage Nation, has also expressed concern.

''If Sen. Obama truly wants to make it happen, he has more control over that than any one Indian leader or any one political Indian activist,'' he said. ''He knows that we want to meet him - that message has been given to him on many, many occasions. It's just a question of how badly he wants to meet Indian country.''

Gray added that Obama is treading on dangerous ground, since many Indians have long felt disillusioned by the political process.

Throughout the primary season, Obama worked overtime to make himself a friend to Indian country, and said on many occasions that he would have an American Indian tribal liaison in the White House if he were elected. In a much-celebrated event, he was even adopted into a Crow family in Montana in May.

Despite the conflicted promise thus far, Kitchkumme said that if two weeks is all the Obama camp is willing to give, he and other members of his tribe ''would do our best to participate.'' Still, he noted that many less fortunate tribal members would likely not be able to do so, so participation would likely be negatively affected.

While Obama's promise to Free may be in jeopardy, the candidate is scheduled to appear in a prime time ''UNITY: Journalists of Color'' presidential forum in Chicago July 24. He, along with Republican presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain, will discuss issues facing minorities in the U.S., and the event will be televised on CNN. Several members of the Native American Journalists Association are expected to be in attendance and will be able to question both candidates.