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Students, elders and leaders rally for tribal sovereignty and election 2000

SEATTLE - More than 1,000 students, tribal elders and leaders attended the first Tribal Sovereignty and Election 2000 Rally at the University of Washington campus organized to draw attention to political issues facing American Indians on state and national levels and to mobilize the Native vote for the 2000 elections.

The American Indian Student Commission of the University of Washington in collaboration with the National Congress of American Indians, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the First American Education Project and the Native American Student Alliance of Evergreen College were hosts to what they hope will be an annual event.

The Oct. 6 rally, which drew representatives from all of Washington's 28 recognized tribes and speakers from across the country, featured a candidates forum and a voter registration opportunity. Some 350 elders and young people who had never registered before signed up, claiming their right to vote for the first time, sponsors said.

"Indian country's future is contingent on its ability to influence America's political election process," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe and vice president of the NCAI. "Our people must send a strong message to society that our votes and activism can make a difference in this election."

The rally was the day before voter registration closed. It also was the anniversary of the Washington Centennial Accord, a fact University president Richard McCormick pointed out in his speech.

"Eleven years ago, on this campus, a few hundred yards north of here at the Burke Museum, Governor Gardner and 26 federally recognized tribes signed the Washington Centennial Accord which recognized the sovereign rights of tribes and provided for how the state of Washington and the tribes should operate on a government-to-government basis," said McCormick.

"The University of Washington was proud to be the host of that historic event in 1989, which was the first of its kind in the nation. We are very pleased to be the site, eleven years later, of today's celebration of the principles expressed in the Centennial Accord."

McCormick then declared Oct. 6, 2000, as American Indian and Alaska Native Day at the university.

Ryan Wilson, director of the university's American Indian Student Commission and an organizer of the event, said this was the first student-sponsored Indian event any president of the university ever attended. Wilson spoke about how important it is that Indians from all around the country, and non-Natives, attend the event and speak out in support of tribal sovereignty.

"We are raising this debate to the intellectual high ground by getting opinion-makers and shapers like McCormick to affirm their commitment for tribal sovereignty," Wilson said.

Featured speakers at the rally included Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission, Billy Frank Jr., chairman of Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Keller George, chairman of the Oneida Nation's gaming commission, Pearl Capoeman-Baller, chairwoman of the Quinault Nation, Jerry Meninick, vice chairman of the Yakama tribal council, Ernest Stensgar, chairman of the Coeur D'Alene tribe in Idaho and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians and Mike Lowery, former governor of Washington.

Each speaker, in their own way, encouraged people to get involved and mobilize their tribes, friends and families.

Allen, head of the First American Education Project, spoke of the state's tribes' unified effort to help oust incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton. People were advised to help get registered voters out on election day, to pass out information on Gorton's voting record against tribal sovereignty and, in general, keep informed and effective about important political issues facing Indian country.

The crowd's response to the speakers was overwhelmingly positive. Young people cheered and waved signs. After a salmon feast, an assembly of tribal veterans led a pow wow grand entry parade. More speakers talked about getting involved with national political parties, the politics of salmon and how to unite the tribal vote.

"It was just neat to see young people feeling just totally fearless," Wilson said. "There is so much apprehension about this ... that if we stand up against Slade and make a big to do about it, is that going to create a big backlash? Is that going to stimulate anti-Indian people to come out of the closet? Is that going to inspire more financial support for his campaign?"

In the end result, the rally itself was an answer to those questions. Wilson said he, Allen and other organizers decided that, no matter what, it was vital to uphold the democratic system and just go for it.

Held in honor and memory of two great American Indian leaders who never let fear stand in their way, Joe DeLaCruz and Helen Peterson, the rally pointed out the importance of working for change within the democratic system.

"Helen and Joe both understood that the best defense for Indian country is to support our friends, regardless of which political party or where they come from, and to oppose those people who are not our friends," said Capoeman-Baller. "By not being involved, we, as Indian people, allow bad federal policy to be implemented and enacted.

"At least in being involved we have a say in it, and we need to take advantage of that."

Capoeman-Baller said she thinks Indians need to take a strong stance on appointments of Indian people in key positions in the next administration - and not just typical positions such as assistant secretary of Interior and the director of Indian Health.

"We can't forget about the environment, commerce and all the other areas that are open to tribes," she said.

For the young people, the rally was an incredible opportunity to see how the vision of responsible leaders like DeLaCruz and Peterson is unfolding.

Wilson, 31, an Oglala Lakota graduate student at the university, pointed out that a lot of young Indian people don't really know who their leaders are - and what a leader really should be.

"It's not something you read in books or that is taught or anything like that," he said. "There is this incredible misnomer that all the activism and sovereignty stuff started with AIM in the 1970s.

"But people like Helen Peterson were protecting our sovereignty and fighting against termination policies and doing all these things in the 1950s before some of those guys who claim to be the pioneers were even born.

"Joe and Helen really worked hard to define 'Where do we as tribal people fit into democracy in America.?' How do we combat the systematic exclusion of tribal issues in this democratic process? And how do we get these people to address our needs, too? "That's what this rally was about. And ... as long as there is breath in me, I'm going to try to show young people that there is another way."