FORT WASHAKIE, Wyo.—The presidential candidates are gone. The national media have vanished. The public spotlight on the country's most sparsely populated state is only a flickering election memory.
But here on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho, fallout from the recent same-day visits by Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — as well as an earlier stopover by former President Bill Clinton and daughter, Chelsea — lingers long after the candidates and their entourages have departed to woo voters elsewhere.
Wyoming may have fewer Democrats than Republicans, but every party member seemed to matter during those short, furious days of campaigning in early March. And while the state has even fewer Native Americans than Democrats, the political barnstorming was a reminder of what remains at stake in Indian Country during the 2008 presidential campaign.
"Native issues have never been at the forefront of this country," said Rep. Patrick Goggles, a Northern Arapaho who is the lone Native in the Wyoming State Legislature. "Native Americans generally pick up bits and pieces along the campaign trail."
But Goggles, an Obama supporter, said he detected a climate shift during the visit by the Clintons and Obama, and he is optimistic about political opportunities that exist for tribal members.
"There's a feeling in this country about this change in tide, and Native Americans need to be a part of that," he said.
'We Need to Get Involved'
Ivan Posey, who supported Hillary Clinton in what would turn out to be her losing bid in the state's Democratic caucuses, shares that view. The chairman of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council sat in the "tribal chiefs" building in Fort Washakie several days after the caucuses and said it was time for Natives to embrace not only such traditional issues as sovereignty, tribal rights and health care but also engage in wider discussions on topics ranging from global warming to immigration.
"It's time for Indian people — whether Native individuals or indigenous governments like we are here — to broaden our scope of views," he said. "We need to get involved in national issues. We need to get involved."
Posey and Goggles are among tribal leaders and political activists in Indian Country who are assessing what role Natives will play in this presidential campaign. They want more attention paid to Native concerns as the remaining primaries turn into summer's party conventions and then stretch into fall's general election campaign.
Those discussions and debates can be heard not just on Wind River, with its 3,800 Shoshone and 8,600 Arapaho, but on other reservations nationwide, among urban Indians and in other communities.
"This election is critically important not only to America but to Indian Country," said Kalyn Free, president and founder of the Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN's List, a grass-roots political organization devoted to recruiting and electing Natives to local, state and national office.
Free, a Choctaw whose organization is based in Oklahoma, said there is a "real sense of enthusiasm" among Natives for the presidential election, which she called "an historic opportunity that bodes well for Indian Country."
Although Free is a Democrat, as are most Natives, she said, neither political party should take the Native vote for granted.
"I preach this every day to tribal leaders," said Free, who will be one of three Native superdelegates at the Democratic convention Aug. 25-28 in Denver. "The reason we don't have capital and political power is we don't harness it."
Where Natives Could Matter
INDN's List and Native American Network, another get-out-the-vote organization, have identified seven battleground states — Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and Wisconsin — where Native voters, despite their smaller numbers, could matter in a close election.
In a video excerpt endorsing the efforts of Free's organization, Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster, warned that her own party must not dismiss the Native vote. "I believe that we will not win the key battleground states in the west without a high turnout of Indian voters," she said.
At the nonpartisan National Congress of American Indians, this year's election is of historic importance no matter who wins.
"I think this is the year for us to be as proactive as we possibly can," said Jacqueline L. Johnson, NCAI executive director who is Tlingit. "We need to engage in our parties of choice. ... We need to be ready for a transition to the next administration from day one."
Johnson's organization represents 250 member tribes monitoring federal policy and working to preserve rights under Indian treaties and agreements. Among the most crucial concerns that the presidential candidates must deal with in Indian Country, she said, are tribal sovereignty and management of Indian trust funds.
Johnson said she is "totally optimistic" that whoever emerges as the successful presidential candidate, Natives will have "a friend" in Washington.
"We in Indian Country can advocate at other levels," she said, citing relationships with key federal departments and government aides. "The difference is we will have a more willing ear [in the White House] to deal with issues and crises in our community."
The trio of candidates has indeed galvanized Natives with its ties to the Indian community.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has won praise even among some Democrats as someone knowledgeable about Native issues, stemming from his tenure as former chair and current member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He has the backing of tribes in his home state of Arizona, and as a former prisoner of war, McCain also wins the admiration of many Natives who hold his service record in high regard and even view him as a military hero.
While McCain supports the war in Iraq, opposition to the war has some Natives turning to Clinton and Obama.
In addition, Hillary Clinton has benefited from her husband's warm relations with Natives during his administration. At the same time, she has made her own outreach to the community, sending a videotaped address to the NCAI convention last fall and promising to appoint Natives to key federal posts and to elevate the director of Indian Health Services to the assistant secretary level. She also pledged to work to improve health care for Natives and increase funding for the Indian Head Start program.
Obama Organizers in Action
Meanwhile, Obama has promised to increase funding for health services and to push for continued funding of urban Indian health programs. He said he would appoint a Native policy adviser to his senior White House staff and, like the others, underscored his respect for tribal sovereignty.
However, unlike the Clinton campaign during the Wyoming caucuses, Obama organizers were very much in evidence reaching out to Democrats on the Wind River Reservation, holding a meeting for supporters on the eve of the party caucuses and distributing fliers aimed at pushing his Native agenda.
The Obama campaign organized transportation and other assistance to get Democrats to the Fremont County caucus meeting in nearby Lander. The moves paid off as Obama defeated Clinton in local voting that mirrored the 61 percent to 38 percent margin that the Illinois senator produced statewide and that resulted in a net gain of two delegate votes for his campaign.
Even as Clinton's gender helped her among Democratic voters, Obama's biracial identity was seen as a plus among many party members, especially young Natives such as Layha Spoonhunter, a Northern Arapaho who lives on the Wind River Reservation.
Spoonhunter, 18, whose caucus vote was his first in a presidential election, has spent his initial campaign working for Obama, with whom he identifies as another person of color. "I find someone who understands what the Native Americans are going through," he said. "He's been there, in the same position we've been in. He understands the problems we're facing."
Difficulties facing Natives and the needs of Indian Country run deep.
According to the NCAI, there is an enormous disparity in the overall health and access to health care of American Indians and Alaska Natives. The organization reports that the infant mortality rate for Indians is 150 percent greater than that for white infants. Indians have the highest prevalence of Type-2 diabetes in the world and are 2 ½ times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. The NCAI also says the life expectancy of Natives is five years less than that for the rest of the U.S. population.
In the meantime, persistent poverty and soaring unemployment rates affect the reservation — as high as 65 percent on Wind River during winter months — as well as problems of substance abuse, alcoholism, health concerns such as diabetes and educational needs.
Grim Budget Realities
During the same period that the Democratic candidates and their surrogates were traveling through Wyoming, rallying party members from Cheyenne to Casper to Laramie, members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Washington were being told that only a fraction of funding needed to repair schools, jails and health facilities in Indian Country would be available in the 2009 budget.
Despite a backlog of nearly $3 billion to construct or repair Native health facilities alone, President Bush's proposed budget requested only $15.8 million for health care facilities construction. In news reports, Wyoming's Republican Sen. John Barrasso, a committee member, called that "absolutely unacceptable."
Holding a copy of one of those published stories,
Richard Brannan, chief executive officer of Indian
Health Services at the Ft. Washakie Health Center, was not surprised at the grim news. His clinic on the Wind River Reservation is housed in a building erected in 1877 for the cavalry, he said, but the health care crisis in Indian Country goes beyond aging facilities.
"The No. 1 issue is lack of funding," he said. "That's the bottom line. Without funding, you can't provide services. You can't do anything."
A former chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, Brannan said lack of money for health care means that some clients on the reservation have had to forgo surgeries for knees, hips or shoulders while relying largely on pain medication to help them cope. Meanwhile, cancer "workups" have been delayed, and contract services for outside medical assistance have gone by the wayside.
"People with [ailing] gallbladders, unless it becomes very acute, they basically are left to sit there," said Brannan, adding that the "lack of funding causes premature death and undue pain and suffering because there just isn't the resources to take care of those procedures."
On the Monday morning after the Democratic caucuses, Brannan's health clinic was already filled with mothers and their ill children and several older men who sat slumped in their chairs waiting to be seen by doctors. A high school student skipping school with flu-like symptoms sat on the outside steps to wait his turn while two inmates wearing striped prison garb shuffled along with shackled ankles toward the examination room.
Brannan said his clinic is funded at 50 percent of its actual needs and stays open only because of reimbursements from third parties, Medicaid and Medicare and private insurance payments.
"It just seems that Native Americans are always the afterthought," he said.
Wyoming in the Spotlight
Obtaining additional funding and resources is difficult enough, but merely gaining recognition for the plight on reservations is sometimes equally frustrating.
That's why many Natives on the Wind River Reservation were excited when the vagaries of presidential politics had Clinton and Obama locked in a tight battle for convention delegates, prompting both to visit the state. Even with only a small number of convention delegates as the prize, Wyoming was seen as important to both campaigns. For the front-running Obama, it was viewed as a way to pad his slim lead among delegates. For Clinton, it was an opportunity to build on recent primary victories in Texas and Ohio.
So when the candidates arrived with the national press corps in tow earlier this month, many Natives joined the crowds for a close-up look at the presidential contenders.
Bill and Chelsea Clinton arrived first to stump the state. During a morning stop in nearby Riverton, the former president addressed a standing-room-only crowd at Central Wyoming College near Wind River. The audience of 2,000 included Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribal leaders, whose presence Clinton acknowledged with his opening words.
Central Wyoming is a community college with a large Native population — 15 percent of its 1,700 students — and many were in the audience.
Other Natives, such as Emma Hansen, a Pawnee from Cody, drove three hours to attend the event after hearing about the appearance only the day before.
"I think she's smart and dedicated and well-informed on the issues," Hansen said of Hillary Clinton while listing the economy and health care as her biggest issues. She added that she was surprised at the high percentage of Natives at the Clinton event.
Among those in the audience were high school students from the Wind River Reservation. Four from the Wyoming Indian High School held a hand-painted banner from their top-row bleacher seats that read: "DIVERSITY IS OUR STRENGTH." Meanwhile, other high school students from the St. Stephens Mission School in Wind River — the state's only Bureau of Indian Affairs school — jammed the bleachers after enduring long lines and a lengthy wait.
Kathy Bowker, principal of St. Stephens, said that only a few students had been scheduled to attend the former president's talk but that so many lobbied to hear him that she took the school's 80 Native students, including some old enough to vote. "Everybody wanted to come," she said, adding that she hoped the visit would interest students in their own tribal government as well as presidential politics.
During a portion of his speech, Clinton noted the presence of Natives, young and old, reminded them that his administration had been the first in decades to invite tribal leaders to the White House and said his wife would continue that commitment if elected. Clinton's words were not lost on some Natives in the audience.
"He covered the issues important to Native Americans, including education, health care, natural resources and the energy we can get from what we have," said Zedora Enos, a retired optician and a great-granddaughter of the prominent Shoshone Chief Washakie.
Enos said she was supporting Hillary Clinton because she would carry on her husband's work on Native issues and has demonstrated her own support of those causes. However, Helsha Acuña, director of the Native American Studies program at Central Wyoming College, was more circumspect while praising Bill Clinton's speech. Politicians must move beyond merely meeting with tribal leaders to win support, she said.
"You've got to put your money where your mouth is," Acuña said. "If you are really bringing these Indians in for their advice and to really listen and do whatever is in their best interest, you can't stop at just having a conference and sending people home happy. You need to take a further step."
Lack of Coverage
Taking a step toward political activism is what more and more Natives are doing. But if there is an ongoing debate and concern in Indian Country over presidential politics and Native issues, it may be lost on most journalists.
Reporting on Bill Clinton's visit, the only reference to Natives in the front-page story in the Casper Star-Tribune, the state's largest newspaper, was a description of the Northern Arapaho color guard and the youthful Native dancers who took the stage before the former president spoke. The local Riverton daily did not mention Natives in either of its articles.
The following day and about 120 miles away at a Casper sports arena, Obama spoke to a packed crowd that gave him a raucous welcome and listened as he outlined his goals if elected. Like former President Clinton, Obama seized the opportunity to talk about Natives when a woman identified herself as a resident of Lander, a border town on the edge of the Wind River Reservation.
"You speak of hope," said Michelle Escudero, 43, a mother holding her 3-year-old daughter, Magdalena, in her arms. "Our children have no hope, children on the reservation and off the reservation. You see them devastated by meth, by alcohol addiction, by many, many social problems ... what hope can I bring home to them?"
In a response that would last 5 ½ minutes, Obama began by saying that the issue was one he has discussed with tribal leaders across the country. It is a problem, he said, that "is deeply rooted and obviously historically based. That has to be addressed and we've never come to full terms with it.
"Native Americans are at the bottom of every social indicator: life expectancy, infant mortality, substance abuse, unemployment, suicide. It is heartbreaking. As I said, it is rooted in our tragic past, and that's why we have a special obligation to deal with it now."
At one point, Obama said he would make sure that quality health services would be provided to Natives, on or off the reservation, and that children, in particular, would be the focus of a prevention and educational campaign. He emphasized that he advocates higher education policies that include community colleges and technical training for Native American, African American and Latino students who cannot afford universities or who opt for immediate jobs.
"I think linking opportunities to the future with what they are learning in school, that helps keep kids away from trouble, helps them focus, gives them a path to hope," Obama said.
The Issue of Reconciliation
For Escudero, a non-Native who drove more than two hours to attend the rally, the response was heartening. But afterward she said she wished that Obama had addressed the issue of reconciliation that would acknowledge historic wrongs perpetrated on Natives and give a historical context for their grievances.
"I think there's racism that is huge," she said. "People don't understand the cultural difficulties that Native Americans have to face, and it's because we don't educate in our schools the history of what happened to the Native Americans."
Some Natives present were happy to hear Obama's words even as they expressed disappointment that an Indian had not asked the question.
Andrea Clifford, a Northern Arapaho who works as the human resources manager at the Wind River Casino, had been vacillating between Hillary Clinton and her support for Obama before finally settling on the Illinois senator. In the end, Clifford said she was pleased that attention was finally being paid to Native issues.
"For the first time, we are getting invited to sit at the table and get our voices heard," she said.
But once again, most of the media, including television and newspapers, appeared disinterested in the exchange. They focused almost exclusively on other issues during Obama's appearance and few, if any, noted Escudero's question, the senator's reply or the issue of Native Americans.
That lack of publicity comes as little surprise to Natives who comprised only 2.5 percent of a state population of 515,000 that is nearly 95 percent white, according to the 2006 U.S. Census. The Wind River Reservation is the only one in the state, and its 2.3 million acres in central Wyoming nestle in an area just east of the Continental Divide. The reservation is bordered roughly on the north by the Owl Creek Mountains, which join the Rocky Mountains, and east by Wind River Canyon, from which the reservation got its name.
Originally formed by the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1863, the reservation became home of the Eastern band of Shoshone who called the region Warm Valley, with its lush land and plentiful game and scenic mountains. In 1878, the Northern band of the Arapaho were settled on the reservation when in need of a winter home, and 60 years later, the Shoshone were paid nearly $4.5 million so that eastern half of the reservation could be formally recognized as the home of the Northern Arapaho.
Today, the Arapahos outnumber Shoshones by more than a 2-to-1 margin, and the traditional enemies have had to learn to live and work together, and lobby the outside world on behalf of their members.
Accomplishments to Celebrate
Those on the reservation have endured challenges that include housing, irrigation, water and environmental issues. They also have had accomplishments to celebrate. The Shoshone just built a $3.5 million water treatment plant on the reservation. Wind River Tribal College, chartered by the Northern Arapaho Business Council, has articulation agreements with the University of Wyoming and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Both tribes are seeking ways to enhance economic development on the reservation, looking at oil and natural gas deposits as possible income sources if they can work out pipeline and delivery hurdles. As one of the gateways to Yellowstone National Park, they also have explored capitalizing on tourist dollars although that has yet to prove a boon to tribal coffers.
A revenue producer for both tribes is gaming. With the Wind River and Little Wind River casinos, the Arapaho have two profitable venues. The venture has become so successful that the tribe is building a huge casino along the major highway as the new site of the larger Wind River Casino. Meanwhile, the Shoshone Rose casino on the southern end of the reservation has proved so successful since opening last year that tribal leaders are planning to expand the operation.
The casinos reflect a courtroom victory for the tribes. When Northern Arapaho leaders were making plans for a casino, a federal court ruled that the state of Wyoming had not negotiated in good faith on gaming. Both a federal mediation and appellate court decisions upheld that ruling, and the Northern Arapaho were able to open their casino without a state compact, the only tribe to do so. The state was also barred from sharing in casino revenues.
Still, Ivan Posey, a Shoshone leader, views the casino business with mixed feelings. He acknowledges the jobs and revenue that gaming has brought to a reservation with grinding problems of poverty and high unemployment, but he also worries about addictions that may flare among those with gambling problems and is reminded of other problems, such as substance abuse, that have plagued the reservation.
Posey traveled to Washington several years ago to appear before a congressional committee discussing methamphetamine addiction on the reservation, a scourge underscored when a crackdown on drug dealers included arrest and conviction of a tribal judge. The meth problem has lessened on the reservation, Posey said, but the No. 1 killer in Indian Country remains alcohol.
"Whether that comes from drunk driving, cirrhosis or suicide, that still is an issue we must continue to address," he said. "We're not going to cure it, but we need stronger prevention efforts and those kinds of avenues."
Health care. Unemployment. Poverty. Education. Housing. Law enforcement. Sovereignty.
The list of concerns goes on and on for Indian Country. For many Natives, whoever wins the Democratic nomination must work to resolve those issues. If John McCain is formally ordained the Republican nominee, he must do the same. And whoever wins the White House in November cannot forget promises made on the campaign trail.
Special Place in History
That's what Patrick Goggles thinks. He also believes that Natives are at a special place in history, an opportune time for change - for reservation Indians, urban Indians, for everyone. He dismisses those who are skeptical about the political process and resist taking part in this year's election.
"You have to participate in this political process," he added. "You can't just step back and complain about it."
Goggles, who became the first Northern Arapaho elected as a representative to the Wyoming State Legislature in 2005, said he knows the historic price that Natives have paid. His family name in Arapaho means "Iron Eyes" but was changed to Goggles — as many Indians were forced to do — in order to accommodate census takers and as a requisite to land ownership.
Some day soon, Goggles said, he will return to his old name and add it to his own. He, too, sees the need for change.
Change was also what Goggles had been pushing a few days earlier when he sat in a local Mexican restaurant after the caucuses. At the Fremont County gathering of more than 600 local Democrats, Goggles had been the person who nominated Barack Obama, and he was still feeling the glow of his candidate's political victory.
As he ate lunch, a Hillary Clinton supporter recognized the state legislator and playfully chided him for not backing the New York senator. With a Wyoming flair, the man patted Goggles on the back and teased him for abandoning Clinton.
"Sorry you jumped the fence," he said, chuckling.
It took only an instant for Goggles to reply. "Sorry you lost," he said, and he punctuated it with a hearty, winner's laugh.