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The race continues

Presidential candidates keep pace in Indian country

WASHINGTON - The Indian vote is on the minds of all three remaining presidential candidates. In recent days, a Native Olympic legend endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, Sen. John McCain met with the National Congress of American Indians, and Sen. Hillary Clinton made a series of historic visits to Indian reservations.

While there's no firm overall consensus on who would be the best winner for Indian country, Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills believes Obama is the best candidate to make it to the finish line this fall.

''I was inspired,'' Mills said in a press conference call May 23 announcing his endorsement. ''I've been inspired by three men - Kennedy ... Ronald Reagan ... and Barack Obama. He has a great vision for change - change we can all believe in.''

Mills, a member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe, was born and raised on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He said he's been a lifelong Republican but will vote for Obama, if he eventually becomes the Democratic nominee, over McCain this fall.

The famous athlete rose to prominence at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo where he came in as an unknown competitor and stunned the world by surging forward from third place in the final lap to capture a gold medal in the 10,000 meter run. He has since been inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and his story was the subject of the 1984 film ''Running Brave.''

While Mills currently serves as the national spokesman for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, an organization focused on the well-being of young Natives, he said he would not consider a health advisory position in an Obama administration, or any other White House position. He did say that he'd like to see legal expert John Echohawk, the Pawnee leader of the Native American Rights Fund, play a role in the administration.

Mills added that he was especially attracted to Obama's promise to appoint a senior adviser in the White House who will deal exclusively with Indian affairs, if he is elected.

When queried on how Obama's policies toward Indian country differ from those of Clinton, the other Democratic candidate still in the race, Mills said he felt Obama has been more inclusive. ''The fact that [Obama] is willing to meet with elected tribal officials'' was a key point, Mills said.

Despite his support for Obama, Mills would probably be happy to know that McCain met with tribal leaders during a campaign stop in New Mexico May 26. The Republican nominee sat down with the All Indian Pueblo Council, which represents 19 pueblos in the state, and delegates from the Navajo Nation. Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians and leader of the council, also joined in the meeting.

''We discussed a myriad of issues important to Indian country,'' Garcia said in a statement released after the talk. ''Sen. McCain pledged his support to Indian country and our right to self-governance.''

Like Obama, the senator from Arizona pledged that he would implement a tribal government position within the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, if he were elected.

McCain noted, too, that he has served for several years as chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which has tended to make him an attractive candidate for many Natives nationwide.

''I know Indian country and have been in support of Indian issues in my years as committee chair,'' McCain said during the meeting. ''I support the efforts of Indian country, and the solutions should know no political boundaries.''

''Experience is good, but we need to find alternative solutions to our needs,'' Garcia added in his statement. ''That means not only incorporating changes, but creating new solutions, because that's what true change is all about.''

And then there's the senator from New York. Not to be upstaged by Obama's campaign stop May 19 in Montana's Crow country, during which he was adopted into a tribal family, Clinton and her surrogates canvassed reservations in both Montana and South Dakota. Both states held their Democratic primaries June 3, and some political observers believe the Native vote could play a swing vote in the race.

The former first lady stopped first at the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana May 27.

''We need a president next January who understands the obligation that the United States government has to the tribes that represent the first peoples of the United States,'' Clinton told a crowd gathered on the grounds of Salish Kootenai College. ''I know how challenging the times are for many people. I know, too, that times which are challenging elsewhere become especially difficult in Indian country.''

Clinton also reiterated her knowledge of tribal sovereignty, and noted her support for increased Indian health and work improvements.

The intrepid candidate kept up the pace the next day, visiting Pine Ridge in Kyle, S.D. There, like Obama and McCain, she repeated her pledge to have a senior adviser in the White House focused exclusively on Native issues.

Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton made three stops in highly populated Indian areas - the Crow Creek, Rosebud and Yankton reservations - May 25. He'd already visited Pine Ridge once this campaign season. In Pine Ridge's Shannon County, Clinton won 84 percent of the votes cast in the 1996 general election and 77 percent of the votes cast in the 1992 general election.

Before this election year, stops by presidential candidates on reservations were rare. Bobby Kennedy is the last known campaigner to visit Pine Ridge, in 1968.

Native vote activists say the increased attention makes sense. In South Dakota alone, nearly 14 percent of the state's registered Democrats live in the 11 counties where Indian reservations or tribal headquarters are located.

Democrats living in the state's Indian country number in excess of 26,000. There are only 192,037 registered Democrats in all of South Dakota, so Natives can easily play a swing vote role if they vote in a bloc for a candidate.