2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Obama takes a message for Indians


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Jerry Reynolds
Indian Country Today


Photo courtesy Joshua Lavar Butler -- A Navajo delegation met with presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama Feb. 2 in Santa Fe, N.M. Council Delegate Ervin Keeswood greeted Sen. Obama as Council Delegate Rex Lee Jim looked on. Obama informed Indian country that tribes will be included in his administration.
As the presidential campaign turned West toward the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday states, Barack Obama began to roll out a message to Indian country that tribes will be included in an Obama administration.

''Tribal sovereignty is the starting place of his heart for Native people,'' said Keith Harper, an attorney with Kilpatrick Stockton in Washington who is chairman of the Illinois Democratic senator's Native American Advisory Council. But Obama's specific mission is to include American Indians in deeds, not words alone, Harper said, adding that otherwise tribes will be left out.

He gave it as his sense that relatively few people are out to damage Indian country nowadays; they just don't know the issues and tend to leave tribes out of account. Obama's attitude is the opposite, Harper said. He wants to change the politics of Washington so that tribal and Native issues are included as a matter of course.

''You have to be in that room, in that dialogue. If you're not there, they won't think of you. ... Barack understands that Indian people have been left out at every level. Sen. Obama is going to make sure they're included.''

Harper said Obama has committed to three measures that will help to translate the promise of inclusion into action: he will appoint an American Indian as senior policy adviser; he will rely on a Native ''kitchen cabinet'' of influential leaders and thinkers to bring Native viewpoints comprehensively into his administration; and he will conduct an annual ''Tribal G8 Summit,'' so-called after the annual meeting of leaders from the world's most economically productive nations. Another specific intention of Obama's is to close the ''jurisdiction gap'' in Indian country, Harper said, by making it possible for tribes to prosecute non-tribal members who commit the majority of federal crimes within tribal jurisdictions.

Referring to a local campaign episode that got worldwide attention as momentum for Obama appeared to build before Super Tuesday - the turnout of 14,000 plus for an Obama event in sparsely populated Idaho - Harper emphasized that Obama didn't gather endorsements from tribes beforehand or speak well of them afterward. ''Before that event - before that event - he met with Idaho Indian leaders.''

After Super Tuesday results that were widely interpreted to be a draw for Democrats, with Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York more or less splitting the vote, the results in Indian-populous states loom large to the very end of the primary season. On Feb. 19, Democrats vote in Hawaii and Wisconsin; on March 8 in Wyoming; and on June 3 in Montana and South Dakota.

Harper dismissed a current item of criticism, namely that Obama has appointed an alleged anti-sovereignty activist, Maria Elena Durazo, as the national co-chair of his campaign. Harper said Durazo is not anti-sovereignty but pro-union. He acknowledged that it's an embattled issue as unions have moved to organize in tribal casinos, which tribes have considered a direct affront to their authority over the economic lifeline of casino revenues. Harper said Obama is not going to exclude the union voice from his campaign.

''But here's Barack's position on it - he's pro-sovereignty.''

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