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Second Thoughts on Democratic Party

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BOSTON - Before Indian voters yield entirely to the seductive call of the
Democratic Party, it's time to take a deeper look at some conflicts that
were only partly glossed over by the tightly orchestrated Democratic
Nominating Convention here.

If Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle was a prominent face here, with his
need for reservation votes to win reelection this year in South Dakota, so
was his assistant leader U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the
self-proclaimed son of a gold miner who some would say has just engineered
the biggest land fraud on Indians of our generation.

If U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., won loud applause from the Native
American Caucus by supporting tribal sovereignty against the National Labor
Relations Board, his proposed compromise drew a thunderous silence and some
worried frowns.

If the party platform gave strong support to the government-to-government
principle, none of the prime-time speeches gave it much play, and, as some
Indians noted, one of the oratorical highlights, the well-received address
from Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama, featured a line that
could have come straight from the leaflets of the anti-Indian "property
owners" groups.

Even Democratic candidates of Indian heritage sometimes play it safe on
tribal controversies. For instance, U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, the presumptive
Democratic candidate for Senate in Oklahoma and an enrolled Cherokee, has
not taken a position on the return of Fort Reno land to the Southern
Cheyenne and Arapaho. His non-involvement might derive from the vastly
different historical experience of the eastern Oklahoma tribes of his
Congressional district, exiled from east of the Mississippi, and the
western tribes from the Plains, but it also reflects the political reality
that even Indian candidates need non-Indian votes.

Certainly the Democratic Party has a deep, possibly unshakeable claim on
Indian voters, who have given its Presidential candidates a higher
percentage of their votes than even its stalwart African American
constituency. U.S. Sen. John Kerry is gearing an impressive portion of his
Presidential campaign to Native outreach, including visits Aug. 8 to tribal
leaders in New Mexico and Arizona. Judging from his position papers of
nearly a year ago, he could be called a candidate who "gets it" on the
issue of tribal sovereignty, as it could have been said of Richard Nixon a
generation ago.

Kerry's strategists see the key to what could be another unbearably-close
election. In spite of the fixation at National Public Radio on "swing
voters," control of the Presidency and maybe Congress will not hinge on the
relative few in a static electorate who have not made up their minds; it
will be decided by an influx of new voters from previously
under-represented groups. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of
American Indians, is on to something in his call for a million new Indian
voters. The numbers are do-able. (He can claim credit for anyone his voter
drives bring in, regardless of tribal enrollment.) And the pay-off could be
immense.

But, as so many small incidents at the convention illustrated, increased
influence will not come automatically. Take for instance, one of the few
spontaneously-exciting moments, the speech by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the
widely disregarded former Presidential candidate. Sharpton brought the
audience to its feet with a roar when he spurned the suggestion by
President Bush that African American voters could increase their influence
by occasionally supporting Republicans. "Our vote was won by the blood of
martyrs," he shouted, to sustained applause. But Sharpton's own
Presidential campaign was sustained by the inventive Republican strategist
Roger Stone, for reasons still not entirely clear. Native leaders should
ponder the disconnect between political reality and rhetoric, no matter how
thrilling.

The question should always arise, why give unqualified support in return
for nothing but lip service? None of the Congressional leaders of either
party stopped Sen. Reid's railroading of the Western Shoshone claims
payout, although they could have delayed it with a word to consider the
serious objections raised by the NCAI, among others. Instead Reid was an
honored presence at the convention, appearing as a speaker and even as
co-host of a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee "Celebration of the
Native American Community."

Reid's Western Shoshone bill enforced a dubious ruling by the old Indian
Claims Commission, the mid-20th century effort to extinguish tribal titles.
Sen. Daschle's Lakota constituents should be asking if it will serve as a
precedent to force them to accept a pay-out of the half-billion dollars in
trust for the Black Hills, so far steadfastly rejected by the tribes as a
betrayal of their sacred lands. Here is an issue that would really test the
extent of Indian influence.

Likewise, Rep. Kennedy introduced his compromise on the NLRB with a warning
not to "over-extend" claims of tribal sovereignty. He is willing to leave
tribal off-reservation enterprises under the jurisdiction of the Labor
Relations Board and open to union organizing. From one viewpoint, he was
merely restating the situation before the NLRB's San Manuel ruling. But
some who heard his somewhat confusing formulation wondered if he was
abandoning the sovereignty of tribes without a land base or if he would
compromise the status of off-reservation casinos. These are questions to be
worked out in drafting the promised legislation. Even granting Rep.
Kennedy's good will, Native representatives in Washington know well that
they can't relax their vigilance even for a minute.

The attacks on tribal sovereignty are coming from both right and left, and
they fly colors that can deceive the unwary. Obama fell into that trap in
one of his rhetorical flourishes, proclaiming, "There's not a black America
and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United
States of America." This rhetoric comes close to the favorite line of One
Nation, the Oklahoma front for non-Indian convenience stores and gas
stations that has broadened its lobbying against the tribes'
constitutionally guaranteed immunity from state taxation into an all-out
campaign against sovereignty. This outfit is part of a network of local
groups that have their ups and downs, but in Connecticut for now are riding
high with the support of the state's leading liberal Democrats.

Nationally, the Democratic Party clearly wants Indian votes, and it's
pleasant to be sought after so avidly. But the Native constituency has
every right to step back for a minute and ask the age-old question, "What's
in it for me?"