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Obama touts Indian policy ahead of Super Tuesday vote

Fresh from a big win in the South Carolina primary, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinoia) on Sunday said he would respect tribal sovereignty and empower Indian communities as president.

Obama, a first-term senator, is promising to meet with tribal leaders on a regular basis. He said he will hold a yearly summit with them to develop and implement a national Indian policy.

"Washington's 'one size fits all' solutions don't work in Indian Country," Obama said. "Tribal communities should be empowered to address their own problems, and that will be an important goal of my presidency."

If he wins the November election, Obama plans to appoint an Indian policy advisor at the White House. Currently, there is no position set aside for Indian Country, so tribal governments must compete with state and local governments for attention.

On specific issues, Obama supports "full" funding of the Indian Health Service. During debate last week on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, Senate Democrats said the agency only meets 60 percent of the health care needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Obama, who is a co-sponsor of the IHCIA, is vowing to continue funding for urban Indian health centers. President Bush has repeatedly tried to eliminate the $33 million program -- just last week, he threatened to veto the bill, citing concerns over urban Indians, who make up the majority of the Native population.

Indian school construction, tribal colleges, tribal law enforcement, tribal courts and Indian housing deserve more funding, according to Obama. He said he would work to change federal law in order to patch up "jurisdictional gaps" in Indian Country.

Finally, Obama said he would work to protect sacred sites and reform the Indian trust. Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation who is an attorney for the Cobell trust fund lawsuit, works for the senator's campaign.

"I may not have been in Washington long, but I have been there long enough to know that things in Washington must change," Obama said. "And nowhere is that more true than in national Indian policy."

The pledges came a day after Obama won the South Carolina primary with 55 percent of the vote. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-New York) came in second with 27 percent and former Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina) was third with 18 percent.

Among the Democratic candidates, Obama and Clinton, who is also co-sponsoring the IHCIA, each have two wins on their side. Edwards has yet to score a victory in the race.

The next big test comes a week from tomorrow. On February 5, also known as Super Tuesday, Democrats will head to the polls in 22 states for their primaries.

The roster includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota and Oklahoma. All are states with significant percentages of Native Americans.

Obama will visit New Mexico before the primary, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported. A campaign organizer told the paper that some Indian leaders plan to endorse Obama at a press conference tomorrow.

After Alaska, New Mexico has the highest percentage of American Indians and Alaska Natives, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. During the 2004 presidential election, the state narrowly went to Republican George W. Bush.

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