Democrats reach out to Indian Country at NCAI
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

The annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) turned into a Democratic presidential forum on Monday, with five candidates courting a crucial segment of the voting population.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark appeared in person, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) sent a videotaped speech while Rep. Dick Gephardt (Iowa) fielded questions in pre-recorded interview. And in a first for NCAI, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) participated live via satellite.

"This is an historic occasion," said NCAI President Tex Hall, who is also chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota.

Jackie Johnson, NCAI's executive director, estimated that there about 1.5 million Native Americans registered to vote, not enough to generate the same kind of attention the national parties are giving to Hispanic and other minority voters. But in several key states, she pointed out, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the power to sway elections.

In 2000, for example, former vice president Al Gore carried New Mexico by just a few hundred votes. Last year, Tim Johnson, a Democrat, was re-elected to the Senate by less than 600 votes in South Dakota. In 2004, these states, along with Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma and Washington, are seen as key Indian battlegrounds.

With that in mind, the five candidates were eager to target the estimated 3,000 people attending NCAI's 60th annual conference, being held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week. Campaign aides and operatives passed out flyers, gave press briefings and spoke with delegates throughout the day.

The outreach will come to a head a year from now, when the race boils down to President George W. Bush and the Democratic challenger. NCAI has moved up the date of its 2004 meeting, to be held in October in Florida, to coincide with the election. NCAI is already working to get the final candidates on the agenda, Johnson said.

For now, it was a wide-open race as the hopefuls brought familiar messages to NCAI. All spoke of the need to uphold treaty rights, protect the government-to-government election and increase funding for Indian health care, housing and other programs. Most also called for an accounting of billions owed to individual Indians and tribes.

Dennis Kucinich (, a vegan who doesn't eat meat or animal-related products, was up first in the morning. He compared the United States' failure to respect tribal nations with the Iraqi conflict, which he voted against as a member of Congress. "This country has a moral obligation to keep its agreements," he said.

Wesley Clark (, is a four-star general who served as supreme allied commander of NATO forces for three years ending in 2000, spoke next. He has never held a political office, but said his experience as an international leader would guide his relations with Indian Country.

"That means that the federal government needs to consult with you as a full partner in matters that affect your communities. And it means that the government needs to exercise true trust responsibility. If they can figure out how to get tens of billions of dollars all the way to Iraq, then I think they can account for the money you're owed right here in America," he said to loud applause.

During the afternoon session, Dick Gephardt ( was introduced by his daughter Chrissy Gephardt, who attended the conference. In a taped interview conducted with NCAI's Johnson, he spoke and about his record in Congress opposing attacks on tribal rights and said he will continue this stance in the White House.

"I will put people on the courts who will respect the concept of sovereignty," he said. "I don't think that that's been happening, and it needs to happen. . . I will put Native Americans into court appointments so that the concept of sovereignty is not something that has to be taught to every judge."

Joe Lieberman ( is familiar to many in Indian Country as Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election. His taped speech highlighted the need to increase resources for Indian health, economic development, law enforcement, housing and other areas.

"It is a quiet crisis," he told the delegates. "The voices of need, the voices of anger, the voices of justifiable demands for what has been promised [to Indian Country] are getting louder every day."

John Kerry ( rounded off the day by frequently referring to his experience in the Vietnam war and his role in fighting for Veterans' rights. He was the only candidate who had enough time to respond to questions from NCAI attendees, and he drew frequent applause for his record in Congress and the specific actions he said he would take in the White House.

"I am the only candidate with a comprehensive agenda for Native Americans," he told the convention. He said he would bring health care to everyone, reduce overcrowded housing, increase economic development and small business loans and build new Indian schools. He added that he would ensure tribal governments receive anti-terrorism funding and said he would create an Indian position at the Department of Homeland Security. Clark also supported direct DHS funding to tribes.

The courting of Indian votes continues on Wednesday with a speech from former Vermont governor Howard Dean ( He is set to address NCAI that morning.

Separately, NCAI has a Native Vote 2004 initiative which will track candidates in state and national elections. During a press briefing yesterday, Hall and Johnson said it will help keep politicians accountable with a scorecard on their views on Native issues.

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians -

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