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Native Americans Get in the Spirit of Political Empowerment

Elections: Tribes nationwide are launching get-out-the-vote drives, seeking to raise their voice over environmental and other issues affecting them.


FLATHEAD INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. — Here in Montana, the Great Spirit has always helped those who help themselves. So when Pat Pierre recently offered up a prayer to elect Democrat Mark O'Keefe governor, he made sure there was a voter registration booth close by.

"Remember this when you go to the polls," the elderly spiritual leader told 500 members of the Salish and Kootenai tribes who had gathered for a political rally. "He that is not with us is against us."

In an unusually competitive political year in Montana, the Tuesday election will influence policies ranging from Indian water rights to the buffalo slaughter in Yellowstone National Park to taxation on the reservations. And to an unprecedented degree, the state's Native American leaders have identified friendly candidates--and launched a massive effort to get them elected.

They are not alone.

Native Americans nationwide are putting registration and get-out-the-vote drives into high gear; casino-rich tribes from across the country have poured nearly $800,000--more than a third of it from Southern California--into defeating Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who repeatedly has challenged tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. Indians in Oklahoma are soliciting help to unseat Republican Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr., who has attempted to make tribes subject to state taxes.

In Montana, not only are tribes stressing voter registration, they are delivering absentee ballots and offering voters rides to the polls. In addition to backing O'Keefe in his race against GOP Lt. Gov. Judy Martz, they are targeting Republican Sen. Conrad R. Burns, who has challenged the tribes on sovereignty issues.

"The message now is, if you're going to attack Indian country, then Indian country will attack back--and there will be consequences," said Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallem tribe in Washington state who has spearheaded the effort against Gorton.

In addition to writing checks, tribes are mobilizing in an unprecedented fashion, Allen said. "What you're seeing is more volunteers. You're seeing Indian people saying: 'Where do I gotta go and help out? How do I get signs put up in my community?' You see a lot happening that didn't happen before."

There were a record 96 Native American delegates at this year's Democratic National Convention. Ten tribes have lobbying offices in Washington, D.C., and Indian gaming has been responsible for $1.3 million in political contributions so far this year--10 times the 1992 levels. About 70% of the money has gone to Democrats.

"Native communities are becoming much more politically astute . . . and this year it's been particularly troubling because neither presidential candidate knows much about Indian policy," said George Cornell, director of the Native American Institute at Michigan State University.

Tribes are focusing their collective strength in those regions where Indian issues are most at stake. "When you've got somebody like Sen. Gorton . . . of course you're going to see a lot of people organizing against him," Cornell said of the lawmaker who repeatedly has sought to limit tribal sovereignty and fishing access on nonnative lands.

Gorton has been dubbed by his detractors as "the last Indian fighter." Yet throwing their weight behind Democrat Maria Cantwell--the Seattle software millionaire who already has spent about $6 million (nearly two-thirds of it from her own pocket) mounting a down-to-the-wire challenge against Gorton--is a mixed bag for many tribes. Gorton chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that doles out money to reservations nationwide, and tribes cross him at their peril. Gorton has directed millions of dollars toward the construction of Indian schools and health, irrigation and salmon recovery programs.

"Tribes pooling their resources together in an effort to defeat a senator is a recipe for disaster," Tom O'Keefe, an eastern Washington Democratic House candidate who is married to a Nez Perce Indian, wrote earlier this year. "What if the tribes pour millions of dollars into the campaign and Sen. Gorton wins reelection?"

With that in mind, some Washington tribes have refused to endorse Cantwell, and others hung back before last month's primary election. Gorton's apparent vulnerability--the latest polls show him at 46%, just three percentage points ahead of Cantwell and within the margin of error--will prompt many tribes to step forward, Allen predicted.

Conscious that Indian leaders weren't going to win broad public support by attacking Gorton on tribal issues, Allen's First American Education Project convened focus groups and determined that there was broad concern about the incumbent's environmental record. A television ad that Allen's group started running this month in western Washington highlighted Gorton's support for a controversial gold mine in north-central Washington.

Likewise in Montana, Native Americans are spotlighting environmental issues as a means of reaching non-Indian voters.

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