With both presidential candidates answering Indian questions at the recent UNITY Convention in Washington, D.C. and the subsequent visit by Kerry to Navajo land while Republican ads ran in the Dine language, you just have to know this election is going to be awfully close. The candidates are going all out to canvass for anything even remotely whispered to be a "swing" vote. Indians are just such an item this year in several states, and so this is a great moment to shout loudly and clearly about Indian rights, sovereignty and the pursuit of inherent freedom.
Native journalist Mark Trahant's request that President Bush define Indian sovereignty we thought right on the button: "What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and the state governments?"
Expectedly and to some uncomfortable guffawing from the audience, Bush stumbled to answer the question - yet his simple, repetitive response registers. We think it needs be used, over and over, until the whole Republican Party has it memorized.
"Tribal sovereignty means that, it's sovereign. You are a - you've been given sovereignty and you are viewed as a sovereignty (sic). And therefore the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities."
Duly criticized later for the "you've been given" portion of his recognition of sovereignty, as we all must acknowledge that American Indians are the first self-governing peoples of this land, Bush's somewhat stark assertion of respect for tribal sovereignty is nevertheless welcome. Additionally, the president noted that, "the federal government has got a responsibility on matters like education, security... and health care... on the promising area ... of economic development ... small business ... encouraging capital flows ..." He ended the response to applause by claiming to have spent, "$1.1 billion in the reconstruction of Native American schools." Pity that Trahant did not pursue the sovereignty issue on his follow up question to the President, but, again, the simple sovereignty-recognizing words of the President's response are good to remember.
Ditto for presidential contender Senator John Kerry's presentation at UNITY. Kerry is clearly more articulate about his relations with Indian tribes. In fact, he has a decent record in his home state and in congressional support for Indian causes, while Bush as governor unleashed his attorney general against the Texas tribes' sovereignty. It fell to Lori Edmo-Suppah, editor of the Sho-Ban News on the Shoshone-Bannock Reservation in Idaho to question Kerry. Edmo-Suppah pointed out that tribes now have to go through states or counties to share in anti-terrorism and preparedness funds.
"I think some of the funds need to go directly to tribes," Kerry said. "I think there are law enforcement, jurisdictional difficulties right now in the dealings with many of the tribal jurisdictions, and we need to work those through, particularly in the Southwest. I'm prepared to do that."
While Bush was assertive, if tongue-tied, Kerry was characteristically deliberate and sedate. Answering Edmo-Suppah's follow-up, about the No Child Left Behind Act, again, the intelligent detail droned rather than sparkled. Perhaps more than anything, this issue of style is before the mainstream media, but in Indian country, no doubt acuity and persistence will get the attention and the support. Throughout last week, Kerry persevered. On his campaign train trek through the Southwest, Kerry made it a point to touch base with tribal communities.
Under the blazing sun of early August, before an immense red rock, a Navajo elder fanned off Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, before 4,000 Native participants at the annual Zuni Navajo inter-tribal pow wow. With photography disallowed by the officiating medicine man, the Kerry campaign won't get the popular value of such a moment, but Kerry the man and candidate certainly continues to gain in Indian country. Speaking with tribal leaders at the 83rd annual Gallup Inter-Tribal Ceremonial in Gallup, N.M., Kerry hit several welcomed chords on health care and on Indian representation in high government office while consistently and loudly committing himself to tribal self-governance. Kerry pledged to name a Native American office in the White House to be "directly responsible for our relationship working with all of the tribes and all of Indian country in America." Before the Kerry train had left Southwest Indian country, the Democrats had organized a "Native Americans for Kerry - Edwards" advisory group. "When I take the oath of office as president of the United States, I will swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and that means to uphold the treaties we have made with Native Americans," Kerry said.
It wasn't lost on Indian leaders that Kerry is the first presidential candidate to visit the inter-tribal Indian ceremonial since Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to organizers. It wasn't lost on local newspapers that Indians represent 9.5 percent of the state of New Mexico's 5.2 million residents, a decisive vote in the tight balloting expected for Nov. 2. Of
course, South and North Dakota, Oregon, Washington state, Nevada and Arizona, all can be expected to feature the importance of the Indian vote.
The Indian vote usually breaks Democratic, but not always. With proper understanding and sincere, consistent follow through, Republicans could yet appeal to tribal publics. The upcoming Republican Party Nominating Convention in New York City will reveal if the Bush team will include credible and capable Indian advisors and if such inclusion will enhance and deepen the President's tribal sovereignty message at UNITY. So far, since the President's short answer on sovereignty at UNITY in Washington, the Republican message has not clearly amplified for Indian country.
For American Indians, this is a perfect season to inject every approachable candidate with a sound dose of knowledge about Indian treaties and self-governance while seeking their strongest endorsements for tribal political and economic freedoms. We must continually educate both political parties and their leading lights that Indian tribal rights predate the formation of the United States, are recognized in the U.S. Constitution, and well-entrenched in any accurate reading of the history of the country. American Indian tribal rights to an adequate defense against state covetousness and cultural destruction are as American as Thanksgiving, motherhood and that Sacred Eagle that flies overhead in vigilance of our national unity.