At this month's Democratic convention one group of top-tier donors caught politicians off guard -- Native Americans. But nobody should stay surprised, as tribal members from across the nation are in a position to make themselves heard during this election cycle.
Flush with gaming dollars, the once impoverished minority group has pumped millions into Democratic National Committee (DNC) coffers and attracted an all-star lineup of powerful political personalities to join gatherings with Native American delegates and tribal representatives. But the featured speakers weren't always at ease with the newest group to join the ranks of upper-echelon donors. By the end of the convention, some Native American participants were learning that money is the quickest way to an attentive ear from Washington but acceptance into the very white world of national politics is a separate battle.
The DNC was the first national convention where American Indians were a political force to be reckoned with -- nearly 100 Native American delegates attended the convention. Sometimes rivaling the lineup at the Staples Center, the Native American Caucus rented a reception room in the upscale Westin Bonaventure Hotel, where it featured high-profile speakers throughout the week. Mirroring other corporate donors, the Native American "lounge" was stocked with promotional bottled water sponsored by the Morongo band of Mission Indians and chocolate "sovereignty bars" also emblazoned with the tribe's logo.
Native American clout was on display when it kicked off the first day of the convention with a keynote address from Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. Later in the week, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman spoke to the crowd. But the real coup came on the second day of the convention, when the caucus was able to draw vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman to address the Native American audience.
Probably the most telling speech during the week was by Ed Rendell, Philadelphia mayor and DNC chairman. Rendell ruffled feathers when he made ignorant and slightly off-color comments about Native Americans. "I would assume, knowing what I know about Native Americans, that you're smart, you're energetic and you're surprisingly good business people," he said.
Native Americans in attendance weren't quite sure what to make of the comments. "That [Rendell's comment] caught me off guard," said Craig Markus, tribal administrator for the Santa Rosa Atache tribe. "It was like he didn't think we could do it." Floyd Redcrow Westerman, a long-time Dakota activist, said the comment showed that Rendell had doubts about Native American competency.
Audience members shifted in their seats later when the mayor said that it probably seemed far-fetched to the audience that a Native American could someday be on a presidential ticket. After Lieberman's nomination, they should have hope, he said. In fact, a Native American is on the presidential ticket in this election -- Winona LaDuke, Ralph Nader's running mate, is part Native American. Earlier, Secretary Glickman also made some questionable remarks when he focused on his agency's commitment to food stamps during his speech -- an issue that he assumed was dear to the audience.
Some American Indian leaders were hesitant to find fault in the featured guests, however. "I just think he [Rendell] was caught up in the moment of here and the excitement of the convention," said Sue Masten, chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of Northern California and president of the National Congress of American Indians. Masten and Mary Ann Andreas, chairwoman of the Morongo Tribe of Banning, Calif., were DNC favorites this week and featured speakers on the floor of the convention Thursday night.
Some tribes are realizing, however, that politicians and parties are fair-weather friends who won't necessarily be committed to Native American issues like sovereignty recognition, Native American graves and repatriation issues and land and resource protection if the flow of contributions dries up. The Pequot Tribe of Connecticut, now fabulously wealthy from gambling profits, has given to both Republicans and Democrats (though $10,000 more to Republicans) this year. "Our interests are not represented by any one party," said Michael Thomas, councilman to the Pequot Nation.
But in the Pacific Northwest, two things have made the Republicans the enemy of Native American tribes. First, the recent decision by the Washington State Republican Party to include the removal of sovereignty protections from the state's tribes as part of the party's official platform was greeted by widespread condemnation -- even from Republicans outside the state. That issue, in part, inspired tribal leaders from across the state to form a public education campaign called the First American Education Project (FAEP). The group's TV ads are running throughout the state, and they look a lot like campaign ads.
"Mainly, this is just an education process on Indian issues, such as sovereignty and treaty rights," said D.R. Michelle, a member of the Colville Tribal Business Council, which is participating in the project. "For us, it goes back to the Republican amendment that was out to do away with tribal government."
The state Republican party ultimately retracted the controversial plank, but the damage had been done. For many, said Michelle, it just revealed the party's true colors and confirmed how far there still is to go in educating the public.
The other reason Republicans are viewed as the enemy by many tribes is because it is the party of Slade Gorton, Washington state's Republican senator who is up for reelection this fall. Gorton has often taken stands on issues that have been unpopular with Native Americans, and tribes are expected to lend support to his Democratic challenger this fall. The FAEP's TV ad even primes the pump, as it singles out Gorton by name for his anti-environmental record.
In the end, despite the cultural insensitivity of some politicians -- even inside the party they favor -- Native American delegates agreed that participating in the Democratic National Convention was historic for tribes.
"We've come a long way," said Iris Martinez, Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians vice chairperson. "We've never even had a caucus before."
And perhaps, with time and a steady flow of campaign donations, political figures will become so attentive to Native American interest groups, there won't be any room left for misunderstandings.