Addressing a crowd of minority journalists on Sunday, Sen. Barack Obama
(D-Illinois) promised to help tribes create a "better life" for their people if he is elected president.
Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, told attendees of the UNITY
convention in Chicago that Native Americans are
"doing worse than any other population" in the United States. He cited a lack of health care, housing, education and employment opportunities in Indian Country.
"I have to confess that I'm more concerned about delivering a better life and creating a better relationship with the Native American peoples than anything else," Obama said. "And that's what I want to engage tribal leaders in making sure happens."
Obama said he wants the federal government to acknowledge the "tragic history" of Native Americans. He said he would consult with tribes to determine what an apology might look like.
"You know, what an official apology would look like, how it would be shaped, that's something that I would want to consult with Native American tribes and councils to talk about, and -- because, obviously, as sovereign nations, they also have a whole host of other issues that they're concerned about and that they've prioritized," said Obama.
In February, the Senate passed the Indian Health Care Improvement Act
, which contains an official apology to Native peoples for their treatment by the government. Obama, however, was not present for the vote.
Neither was Sen. John McCain
(R-Arizona), the presumptive Republican nominee. McCain, the former chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
, also skipped the UNITY convention, citing scheduling conflicts.
More recently, Obama and McCain failed to show up for a July 16 vote on a $50 billion global health bill that includes $2 billion for Indian Country. The package awaits President Bush's signature.
Since the start of their campaigns, Obama and McCain have reached out to Indian voters. Although McCain has more experience due to his years in the Senate, Obama has won endorsements from a significant number of tribal leaders and was the first candidate to visit a reservation during the presidential cycle.
McCain and Obama share similar views on tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship. But Obama's platform
goes further on a number of issues, including support for restoration of tribal jurisdiction over non-Indians, which McCain has called "too controversial" to be considered.
The candidates also differ on affirmative action. On Sunday, McCain said he supported a proposed amendment to the Arizona Constitution that would ban "preferential treatment" on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
"I do not believe in quotas," McCain said on the ABC News program This Week With George Stephanopoulos
. "But I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I've always opposed quotas."
ABC News called McCain's stance a reversal
one he took in 1998 and Obama said his rival "flipped and changed his position" on the issue.
"I am a strong supporter of affirmative action when properly structured so that it is not just a quota," Obama said at UNITY when he was asked about McCain's views.
The Arizona proposal has been criticized by Indian educators because it could eliminate programs at public universities that benefit Indian students.
The UNITY convention is held every four years and draws upwards of 10,000 Native American, African-American, Asian and Hispanic journalists. During the 2004 conference, President Bush elicited laughter when he was unable to articulate the meaning of tribal sovereignty
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