PINE RIDGE, S.D. — Bruce Whalen sighed heavily as he walked the old reservation neighborhood, talking to American Indians about something many never do: go to the polls and vote.
Along the way, he passed boarded-up homes and barbed wire fences, cars with shattered windshields and half-wild packs of "rez dogs" parading down the street.
"This is despair," said Whalen, a political organizer and Oglala Lakota raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation near the border with Nebraska. "Outsiders call this place a Third World country. But the people who live here want change."
Activists such as Whalen and Cecilia Fire Thunder are encouraging Indians to pursue change -- and break generations of historical and cultural barriers -- with a bigger voice in American politics. And they're getting help from tribal elders: Pine Ridge has moved its tribal polling day to Nov. 2 to coincide with federal and state elections, making it easier for the 12,000 voting-age residents to participate in both.
Many see Whalen as a harbinger, battling his tribe's rampant unemployment, addiction and spousal abuse through the ballot box. The 42-year-old college student is working on behalf of Republican John Thune, who is running to represent South Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Whalen believes Thune will bring fresh ideas to the reservation.
From the Dakotas and Oklahoma to Arizona, California and Washington state, the Navajo, Cherokee, Yakama and other Native American tribes are being aggressively courted by both parties this year like never before.
Candidates took a greater interest after watching how tribes helped turn elections in Washington and South Dakota in 2000 and 2002, as well as how American Indians voted to support gaming initiatives in several states.
In what may be a close race for president this year, such a voting bloc could be pivotal in swing states with large Indian populations, such as Arizona, New Mexico and Washington.
Many tribes now use gaming profits to hire lobbyists to push Indian causes. They're also funding ambitious get-out-the-vote efforts across isolated reservations without rural address numbering systems and where many residents live without automobiles or telephones. The National Congress of American Indians has pledged to register a million new voters in 2004 alone.
The message: Though long detached from the American political system, Indians can make a difference, electing candidates who can improve life on and off the reservations.
Although there are no statistics on general election voter turnout among the nation's 4.1-million Native Americans, experts estimate the figure to be between 20% and 40% -- significantly below the nation's average turnout of 50%. Indians vote more often in tribal elections, achieving rates as high as 70%.
The new push for Indian votes was apparent this spring at a national tribal conference during which nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates talked up such issues as Indian self-determination and small-business development. The Republican National Committee developed its first Native American website this year. And Arizona GOP officials will canvas the Navajo reservation with Navajo-language brochures.
Native Americans are responding to the organizing efforts -- and having success.
In 2000, Northwest tribes raised more than half a million dollars for an advertising campaign to help defeat U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), who was viewed as anti-Indian for challenging tribal sovereignty. Two years later, South Dakota tribes worked together to help elect Democrat Tim Johnson to the Senate over Republican Thune.
But many Native Americans think non-Indians don't want them to vote. The American Civil Liberties Union went to trial this month after filing a lawsuit against state officials for allegedly redrawing congressional districts to weaken the Indian vote. And South Dakota's 2002 Senate race was marred by accusations of voter fraud and racism.
Shortly before midnight Nov. 6, 2000, Thune had surged ahead in the race for one of South Dakota's U.S. Senate seats by 3,000 votes.
Johnson went to bed sensing defeat -- only to awaken hours later to a welcome surprise: Late-counted votes from the Pine Ridge Reservation won him the race by 524 votes.
This year, in a race for the state's other Senate seat, Thune is running against Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle. Already, he is meeting with tribal officials across the state, taking time to play pickup basketball with Indian teens.
"Treatment of Indians by past generations is not something this state can be proud of," he said in an interview. "I can't change the past. But I can help change the future."
Republican Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and John McCain of Arizona are among the lawmakers and state officials who have sought Indian support. McCain, who has defended the unique legal status of tribes as sovereign nations, received their backing and contributions when he ran for president four years ago.