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Wilkins: The how and why of Obama’s Native support

Being trained in the art, not science, of politics I was transfixed at the recent election of Barack Obama. I studied the campaigns of both major parties during the last two long years of America’s highly partisan politics, and I observed and sought to comprehend the import of the ever increasing involvement of Native nations and Native individuals in American politics. Obama’s unprecedented rise and striking defeat of John McCain, aided and abetted by the indigenous vote, begs for critical analysis.

The incendiary race between Obama and McCain, each of whom had shown a spirited interest (in the past if not always the present) in Native issues, notwithstanding our paltry numbers and ambivalent status as extra-constitutional sovereigns whose citizens are also American citizens, was a sight to behold for America and much of the world as well.

As the original nations of the Americas, whose citizens only gradually and usually under undue pressure, were extended the federal and state franchise, I was fascinated to see how many native political leaders, commentators, academics, and regular “Joe the ‘tribal officials’” openly, emotionally and emphatically embraced – and in the Crow Nation’s case, actually adopted – one of the candidates.

I have been closely examining the campaign and election results in an effort to identify and comprehend the factors that compelled so many Native nations and individual Indians to vest their political fortunes with either McCain or Obama, and figure out why Obama received the lion’s share of indigenous political support.

Obama’s unprecedented rise and striking defeat of John McCain, aided and abetted by the indigenous vote, begs for critical analysis.

Was it because he is a person of color or, more precisely, a mixed-blood individual? And did the fact that his African ancestry actually derived from Africa and not the U.S. make any difference? Was it because his message of hope, and his abundant faith in the ideal of democracy, reminded Natives of the historic trust relationship forged generations ago between our ancestors and Europeans and early American policymakers? Was it because Obama is an intellectual, willing to embrace and not shy away from difficult concepts and tasks? Was it his cool demeanor, charisma, and wonderful oratorical skills, leadership traits that have always been highly prized in Indian country? Or was it because he enunciated policies and articulated goals that comported more with the autonomy, dignity and basic respect of Native nations?

It will take a detailed empirical study of our many nations to know for sure. Obama’s election was a historic moment, but it may also prove to be a mere historical blip. The interconnected global economy, the entrenched institutions of governance and the corporate behemoths that overshadow national politics largely determine the kinds of policies that are enacted, denied or aborted. These and other forces will not be as easily swayed by Obama’s charismatic personality, impressive intellectual talents, personnel changes, or policy shifts.

So where does this leave Native nations? Historically, our peoples have looked to the U.S. chief executive as the most salient embodiment of the pledges and assurances made to our ancestors. It is too early to tell whether an Obama administration will be more inclined to respect tribal sovereignty, Native self-determination, treaty rights, and actually support an enhanced nation-to-nation relationship as promised. We have received many promises before from American presidents.

Nevertheless, as a non-voting Lumbee national, I was drawn to Obama, as was much of the rest of Indian country, the U.S., and the world, for that matter. Like some visitors from Denmark to my classroom a few weeks before the election exclaimed, although they were Danish they still supported and warmly endorsed Obama for president, fearing that a McCain administration would only further isolate the U.S. and increase the number of military engagements. I, too, openly voiced my support for his candidacy, but as a trust-connected ally, not as a voting citizen of the U.S.

It is too early to tell whether an Obama administration will be more inclined to respect tribal sovereignty or Native self-determination.

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The massive level of direct indigenous political involvement in this presidential election and in many congressional and gubernatorial elections raises the question not of separation of powers but of separation of sovereigns. While Native nations have long been connected to the U.S. via treaties, trade, and the trust doctrine, we have also long maintained that we are distinctive and fairly autonomous polities, operating with our own governing systems, citizenship requirements and legal codes.

There is no question that, according to federal law, we have the right to vote in each of the three polities we are connected to – tribal nation, state and the federal government. But such deep involvement in non-Indian elections raises some fascinating, some might say, awkward questions about how free and distinctive our sovereignty really is.

That said, a comment from Vine Deloria springs to mind about this election and what it bodes for the future. He was asked in an interview in the 1970s “what, then, to an Indian, is the ultimate goal of life?” Deloria’s response was pithy. He said the goal was “Maturity: the ability to reflect on the ordinary aspects of life and discover their real meaning.” In describing “maturity,” Deloria said that it was “a matter of reflection on a lifetime of experience, as a person first gathers information, then knowledge, then wisdom. Information accumulates until it achieves a sort of critical mass, and patterns and explanations begin to appear.”

Maturity, he described, was usually achieved when one reached a very old age or when one gained the capacity to reflect on their own experiences, usually through having received visions. It is this ability to reflect back that “we begin to understand how experience, individuality, and the cycles of nature all relate to each other. That state seems to produce wisdom.”

Deloria then compared Native societies with the West and suggested that “because Western society concentrates so heavily on information, its product is youth, not maturity.” I wonder what he would say in response to Obama’s election? Has the U.S., by electing a mixed-blood African/White American to the presidency, lurched a step closer to becoming a more mature society?

It is far too early to answer either of these questions in a positive way. And if history is the trusted guide I believe it to be, we have many more hurdles to surmount before we can rest assured that we are, in fact, maturing as nations or moving beyond race.

Still, it was nice to go to bed with a smile on my face Nov. 4.

David E. Wilkins, Lumbee, is professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.