President Obama on the campaign trail. Among his major supporters are Native… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — At a July fundraiser in the elegant Mandarin Oriental hotel near Washington's Tidal Basin, President Obama met with some of his most steadfast supporters — two dozen political and business leaders eager to write sizable checks to help keep him in the White House.
All were leaders of Native American tribes, who pressed their issues with a president they say is attuned to their needs.
Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, told Obama his Oklahoma tribe was owed $50 million for its costs of administering federal health services.
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"He said, 'Let me look into this and see what we can do,'" Baker recalled. A week later, he received a letter from the White House pledging to follow up. A White House spokesman said the administration had been reaching out to many tribes on the same issue.
"President Obama is a promise keeper," Baker said. "He promised that he would work with Indian country, that he would help us, and he has done that at every turn."
The tribes have shown their gratitude, giving at least $2.5 million to Obama's reelection campaign through the end of July — far outstripping their donations in other recent presidential elections, according to data provided by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Republican challenger Mitt Romney has just begun to make appeals to tribes, holding a fundraiser at his Boston headquarters last month. So far, he has raised about $750,000 from tribes, according to a campaign official.
The donations highlight a potentially lucrative and, until now, largely untapped source of funds for presidential politics. Unlike corporations and unions, tribes can give directly to candidates. And because of their status as sovereign nations, they can donate more to presidential campaigns than individuals, who cannot give more than $117,000 in federal donations every two years.
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Tribes, primarily those engaged in the $26-billion Indian gambling industry, already have become major players in state and congressional politics. In California, for example, four tribes spent more than $100 million to pass a ballot measure allowing them to expand casinos in 2008.
Tribal leaders say Obama won their loyalty by doing more for Native Americans than any other president. Obama — dubbed Barack Black Eagle when he was adopted by the Crow Nation during the 2008 campaign — is the first president to hold an annual summit with leaders from the 566 federally recognized tribes.
The tribes received $3 billion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. In addition, the administration beefed up tribal law enforcement powers and improved Indian healthcare services.
Perhaps most significant, the administration has settled billions of dollars in outstanding land and trust claims, including a 13-year-old class-action lawsuit originally brought by Elouise Cobell, a member of the Montana Blackfeet Nation, alleging that the federal government had cheated Native Americans out of income from land and mineral rights the government managed on their behalf for more than a century.
At one point, President George W. Bush's administration offered a $7-billion deal to settle the Cobell case and more than 100 other tribal trust claims, as well as bar any future suits and relieve the government of its historic accounting obligations. Cobell rejected that as "an insult." The Obama administration ultimately settled the Cobell case in December 2009 for $3.4 billion, and has committed another $2 billion to settle dozens of other long-standing claims by the tribes.
At a Native American caucus held during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., administration officials reminded tribal leaders that Obama ended the contentious Cobell litigation.
"Barack Obama said he wanted it resolved and he wanted to do good things for Indian country to address the injustices that had happened," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department oversees most Indian affairs.
Until Obama's election, "what the United States has done is essentially taken a position that Indian country is something to almost be forgotten," Salazar said. "Your president, Barack Obama, Black Eagle, has said that's not going to be the case.
"He has your back, and so come this November, we need you to have his back."
A key player who is both helping Obama's reelection and representing tribes in claims against the government is Washington lawyer Keith Harper, who signed on early to the Obama campaign in spring 2007 and helped design a strategy to woo tribal leaders.
Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation, helped organize the July fundraiser, as first reported in Indian Country Today, a Native American publication, as well as an earlier one in January. He served on the president's 2008 transition team, has helped raise more than $500,000 for Obama's reelection and co-hosted the Native American caucus at the convention.