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Smashed 'Sovereignty Bar' equates with GOP sovereignty

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LOS ANGELES - The Native American Caucus of the Democratic party kicked off convention week in high style with several high-profile guests including Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.

Throughout the first morning every speaker vowed to fight for tribal sovereignty, a message emphasized by a peculiar gift called a "Sovereignty Bar." A chocolate bar given to caucus members to emphasize support of the sovereignty issue by the Democratic Party.

Keynote speaker Babbitt reminded the audience this was the last time he would address the caucus as Secretary of the Interior.

"We now have a generation of Native American leaders who have the skills and savvy to effectively lead," Babbitt said.

He added the Washington state Republican party deserved an "A" for honesty when they added an anti-sovereignty statement to their platform at their state convention in June.

Almost half of the 96 American Indian delegates were present at the session with caucus Chairman Andrew Masiel of the Pechanga Tribe and Frank LeMere, a prominent fixture of American Indian politics from Nebraska, presiding.

"At the Chicago convention in 1996, there were only around 50 American Indian delegates and I was the only one from California. If numbers are any indication, things are looking up," Masiel said in opening remarks.

Mark O'Keefe, Democratic candidate for governor in Montana, said American Indians had not had been full partners in governmental affairs. In a state like Montana it is important for a governor to understand, he said.

Smashing a sovereignty bar on the podium, he said, "This is what Republican leadership would mean to your sovereignty.

Continuing questions about sovereignty and its relationship to the U.S. Constitution rank high on the tribes' list of priorities.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson received the loudest applause of the day. He pointed out that under his watch, Energy had seen the "greatest turnover of Indian lands." He specifically mentioned return of 100,000 acres to the Southern Ute Tribe.

Richardson challenged American Indians to run for Congress and said more Indian women were needed in policy decisions. He stressed the importance of the ever-popular buzz phrase, "government-to-government relations."

"We can continue to improve, but we must know that we can do much better," Richardson said.

LeMere took the podium to honor American Indian veterans and the firefighters battling blazes throughout the West.

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"Indians have served these fields in disproportionate number and we need to now honor those that have given us so much, and have asked so little."

He also said he has been encouraged by the apparent support of American Indian sovereignty from the vice president. "Al Gore has reaffirmed that already several times in this campaign. And, even though we've been assured, we must be vigilant.

"We respect the process," LaMere said. "We ask that those in the process respect us."

As Maria Cantwell, Democrat, who is opposing Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., addressed the caucus, a delegate was overheard to say, "A salmon could probably be running against Gorton and get the gratitude of this audience."

Cantwell assured the audience she would address their issues and provide a very different leadership than Gorton. Health care was a specific concern identified, though she did not specify what she would do.

Later, under questioning in the hall, she suggested creating a secretary-level office in the BIA to specifically address American Indian health issues.

"Sen. Gorton has won by dividing people, the more liberal Seattle area against the rest of the state, and he has divided Native and non-Native peoples. I will fight to unite people behind key issues," Cantwell said.

Senator Jeff Bingaman D- N.M., lambasted Republicans for having only eight American Indian delegates. He said Republican priorities are all wrong for American Indians.

"How many Indian people care about eliminating the estate tax?" he asked. "We in the Democratic Party focus on issues that actually affect Indian people."

In an exclusive interview Babbitt said that the thing American Indian people needed to keep in mind when they reflect on the Clinton administration is the permanent change in attitude toward tribal sovereignty.

"No matter who succeeds, Democrat or Republican, there is a permanent change in the Interior Department from that of stewards to that of partners of Indian tribes. It would be hard for any future administration to change this," Babbitt said.

"I will fight for the rest of my life as a private citizen to make sure that these changes are permanent."

Reflecting on this, the first national caucus, Brian A. Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said, "It will be interesting to see what happens with organized Indians. It's been a long road. The fact that the tribes are able to constitute themselves around specific issues of common interest is tremendously important."

There are about 2 million American Indians in the United States. Of the 3,711 delegates at the convention, just a bit more than 1 percent are American Indian, Eskimo or Aleuts, an Associated Press survey shows.

That compares to just a handful some 25 years ago, said Holly Cook, director of Native American Affairs for the Democratic National Committee.