Sen. Barack Obama at National Congress of American Indians 65th annual convention. Phoenix, Arizona. October 21, 2008.
With just two weeks before the November 4 presidential election, John McCain
and Barack Obama made
an appeal to Indian voters on Tuesday as they head into final stretch of the campaign.
Both candidates were invited to attend the 65th annual National Congress of American Indians
convention, held in McCain's base state of Arizona. Neither appeared in person but they sent video messages and colleagues to Phoenix to press thousands of tribal leaders and tribal members for support.
Though their campaigns have taken great steps to outline their differences, McCain and Obama promised the same thing: a high-level Indian position at the White House. Currently, tribes must deal with an official who also works with state and local governments.
"We must never again get in the situation where the federal government dictates solutions to the problems you confront," McCain said in his message. "I will create a tribal government position in intergovernmental affairs."
"I'll make sure tribal nations have a voice in the White House," said Obama. "I'll appoint an American Indian policy advisor to my senior White House staff to work with tribes and will host an annual summit at the White House with tribal leaders to come up with an agenda that works for tribal communities."
Both candidates have stressed their respect for tribal sovereignty and support for self-determination but Indian Country has come out in larger forces for Obama despite
McCain's two terms as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
More than 100 tribal leaders from South Dakota to New Mexico to Alabama have endorsed Obama while only a few have come out publicly for McCain.
Obama racked up some more endorsements yesterday with the passage of a resolution by the Navajo Nation Council. Delegates voted 59 to 21 to support the freshman senator from Illinois and his running mate, Joe Biden of Delaware.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. previously endorsed Obama and Biden, giving the duo the backing of the largest tribe in the country. Shirley and other Navajo Nation leaders are hosting a press conference in Phoenix today to discuss their support.
"Joe Biden and I look forward to working with the Navajo Nation and all of Indian Country to bring about the change we need," Obama said today.
The message from McCain at NCAI was the first time he has talked about Indian issues on the campaign trail except for a brief mention of tribes during his acceptance speech at
the Republican National Convention. Though he is no stranger to American Indians and Alaska
Natives, due to his 25 years of service in the House and the Senate, he has not visited any reservations during the race or disclosed meetings with tribal leaders.
The American Indians
for McCain Coalition finally got off the ground in September, during the RNC, with some high-profile names. The group's honorary co-chairs are
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation of
Oklahoma who is the only Native American in Congress, and former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana who retired in 2004.
By that time, however, Obama had developed a bigger base in Indian Country with
First Americans for Obama. He took his campaign to the Crow Reservation
in Montana -- a first during the presidential race -- and had already met with tribal leaders across the nation long before he claimed the Democratic nomination in June.
Obama met with even more tribal leaders only a month ago in New Mexico, after formally accepting his party's nod. And while he failed to live up to a pledge to appear at a tribal event that prominent Democratic activist Kalyn Free, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, tried to organize, he has maintained his position as the candidate of choice for Indian voters.
In contrast, McCain has largely remained invisible to tribes. In recent interviews with Indian Country Today, Campbell lamented McCain's failure to organize a tribal event and said Republican organizers failed to contact him in time to discuss Indian issues at the RNC.
But even if McCain hasn't spent much time with tribes during the race, Campbell and other supporters are hoping Indian voters will remember the candidate for sponsoring nearly every major piece of Indian legislation during the late 1980s and 1990s. The list includes the Indian
Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and a number of self-determination and self-governance measures in the mid-1990s, along with laws affecting tribal colleges, education and Native languages.
His second stint as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee from January 2005 through December 2006 saw a lot of media attention due to his focus on the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and controversial issues
associated with Indian gaming. But no major pieces of legislation passed Congress during
that time and McCain didn't lend any support to two big ticket items on the agenda this year -- the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and the Native
American Housing and Self-Determination Act, only the latter of which became law.
McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), whose husband Todd is part Yup'ik, as his running generated a lot of initial interest but it fizzled after reports of her less than close relationship with Alaska Natives spread throughout Indian Country. Julie Kitka, the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, accused McCain's campaign of smearing a well-respected Native official in a recent opinion piece. Palin is due to speak at AFN's annual convention later this week.
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