Residents of Bell Gardens and surrounding areas have an opportunity to take an up-close look at a growing phenomenon: American Indian power politics in action.
Eight of the 10 candidates for principal chief of the 167,000-member Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma will be barnstorming through California, chasing an estimated 4,000 absentee voters in the tribe's June 17 election. Joined by at least six people running for deputy chief and several seeking seats on the legislative Tribal Council, they will make speeches, shake hands at powwows and debate issues.
"This is a real hot race for us," said Sallie Cuaresma of Gardena, a Cherokee and an area director for the Southern California Indian Center. All eight have promised to appear at the group's forum at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Indian Revival Center, 5602 E. Gage Ave., Bell Gardens. The Indian Revival Center is centrally located in Southern California's thriving Native American community 1,300 miles west of the Cherokee capital at Tahlequah, Okla.
The scramble for votes was touched off when Chief Wilma P. Mankiller, 49, opted out of a reelection race after 10 years in office. At stake is a bully pulpit for Native American issues and the helm of a multimillion-dollar organization with hospitals, medical clinics, schools, judicial offices and bingo halls sprawling over 14 counties in northeast Oklahoma.
The latest census figures show that there are 43,000 Native Americans in Los Angeles County. Colleen J. Colson, a Cherokee and American Indian liaison with the Los Angeles County Health Department, estimated that several thousand are of Cherokee heritage, with many living in the Southeast area.
Enrolled tribal members who are eligible to vote generally have a working-class background, said Billie Nave Masters, a Cherokee and adjunct professor of Native American studies at Cal State Long Beach.
Local interest in the elections mirrors not only a reverence for the tribe's rich heritage but concerns over hard money issues such as maintaining free health care at tribal facilities in Oklahoma and higher education grants that finance college educations.
Money issues are very much on the minds of voters, such as Anita Panther, an office worker at the American Indian Clinic in Bellflower. With two children in high school who are hoping for tribal college scholarships, she will be interested in what the candidates have to offer Southern Californians.
"I'll be hungry for information. I'm going to take a big, fat note pad," she said.
Mankiller will be a tough act to follow. The retiring chief, who was once Ms. magazine's woman of the year, is a popular figure who won reelection four years ago with 83% of the votes.
Mankiller is backing George Bearpaw, 45, who has run the tribe's accounting, business development, real estate, environmental operations and community development for 15 years. "He knows the way to respond to what's coming down in Washington. And what it is is plain old meanness. . . . Mean-spiritedness to poor people."
In response, the tribe needs to broaden its economic base, Mankiller said. It recently bought a furniture company and plans are in the works to develop a line of Cherokee-style furniture. Also planned is a brand of Cherokee-label bottled water.
Voters must apply for absentee ballots by May 19. If none of the candidates receives a majority, the two top vote-getters will meet in a July 29 runoff.