Tim Giago: Sen. Barack Obama and the 'R-Word'

In New Hampshire Tuesday, Obama the orator lost to Clinton the conversationalist and there is a difference. An orator hears only his own voice while a conversationalist not only speaks, but listens.

The pollsters and the pundits had all but buried Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and prepared themselves for the coronation of Barack Obama. Well, as we all now know, it didn’t quite work out that way.

When two white males shouted out and then held up signs that read, “Iron my shirt,” a new element entered the campaign of Senator Clinton. There is no better way to fire up a woman than to tell her she should be back at the house ironing shirts and cooking instead of running for public office. It would be like a white male telling a Native American woman to “Be my squaw.”

On Saturday during the New Hampshire debates, a debate that saw the Republicans take the stage first, Obama was asked if he had been watching the Republican debate before he came on and he replied, “I was switching between it and the Redskins football game.” I use the “R-Word” here as a direct Obama quote and in this case the “R-Word” does not mean “Recession.” This lack of sensitivity resonated in Indian country. It made one wonder whether Obama ever considered the meaning of the word that is as hurtful and degrading to Native Americans as the “N-word” is to African Americans.

But for some African Americans to charge Bill and Hillary with racism is way out of line. When Sen. Clinton said Martin Luther King’s dream did not become reality until President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act, that is reality. A dream does not become real until an understanding president takes the action to make it real. Obama using the “R-Word” apparently does not carry the same consequences.

It would behoove all of the candidates running for the presidency that the American Indian vote should not be disregarded. In states with large Indian populations, states like North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona, the Indian vote often tips the scale.

For example in 2000, when now Republican Senator John Thune lost his bid for the United States Senate to Tim Johnson, his staff was about to pop the corks on the champagne because there was only one precinct left to count and they felt their lead was so large that it could not be overcome. Wrong. That last precinct was the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Southwest corner of South Dakota. When that tally came in Sen. Johnson had overcome the deficit and won the senate seat by a shade more than 4,000 votes.

When Thune later scored a narrow victory over Sen. Tom Daschle the turnout on the Indian reservations, particularly the state’s largest, the Pine Ridge Reservation, did not come up to expectations. Only 50 percent of the eligible voters at Pine Ridge, and on several of the other Indian reservations in the state, turned out to vote. Had the turnout been just 60 percent, Daschle would still be in the senate.

So although it is often considered of little consequence, in several western states, the Indian vote can turn the tide.

Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) and former Senator Tom Daschle, both endorsed the candidacy of Barack Obama. I wish they had waited a bit, but I think both of them realize that in a red state like South Dakota, the votes for the next president will probably go to a Republican and their endorsements will mean little.

What is the difference between racism against American Indians and African Americans? Any Indian living in North or South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho or Nebraska can tell you there is no difference. After all, the white residents of these states have been known to call Indians “prairie niggers and red niggers.” There’s that dreaded “N-Word.” But before any African American gets upset, the “N-Word” used in this sentence refers to Native Americans.

Sen. Obama should learn how Native Americans feel about the “R-Word.” If he looks it up in the dictionary he will find that the word “Redskin” is an insult to all Native Americans. Now where is the national mainstream media, a media so quit to jump all over the Clinton’s, when it comes to a Black presidential candidate demeaning Native Americans? Are racial insults reserved for African Americans only? Where is the Indian Al Sharpton?

There is a Native American voting rights group that every Native nation in America should be aware of and should contact. Just email kalyn@indnslist.org and find out how this group can support your efforts to elect Indian candidates or to support the presidential and local candidates of your choice.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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