Boyd Lopez, Sun Dance and Bear Dance leader of the Ute Mountain Tribe (in the headdress) and Byron Red, Sr., executive officer of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, bless the Pepsi Center in Denver a month before the Democratic National Convention began.

Although we’re not exactly thick on the ground at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Native Americans are not the rare exotic finds we have been at past conventions. There are 143 self-identified Native American delegates at the convention, 45% more than in 2004. And according to the Native American press, there are many tribal leaders and other interested native folks in attendance.

Native peoples have greater visibility at this convention as well. Ute tribal leaders used traditional offerings of sage and tobacco to bless the Pepsi Center in Denver, site of the DNC, last month. Frank LaMere, Winnebago from Nebraska and chairman of the First American Caucus, attended the ground blessing.

The opening convention ceremonies featured a group of Navajo code talkers who carried in the flag. David Gipp, Lakota and president of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, spoke as part of the convention’s “real people” talk program. (Participants were asked to offer ideas on the theme of “Renewing America’s Promise.”) Robert Moore, Rosebud Sioux, singer and Rosebud tribal council member from South Dakota, will sing the National Anthem.

(Check out these photos from Reznet News from the convention.)

Although 66 percent of Native Americans in the U. S. live in urban areas, we have the highest concentration of any ethnic population living in rural areas. So most of our issues have a definite rural bent. Health and transportation services for remote populations, as well as access to education and better law enforcement, top the list of our concerns.

Boyd Lopez, Sun Dance and Bear Dance leader of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, at the convention site blessing ceremony.
Photo: Democratic Convention

According to Victor Merino of the online news service Reznet News, the First American Caucus proposal for the Democratic platform included:

“¢ Trust reform and better management of tribal natural resources. (See this story for background on how native resources have been handled by the federal government.)

“¢ Adequate funding of tribal governmental services for education, health care, transportation and law enforcement.

“¢ The development of new resources to reduce crime on Indian reservations, especially to combat drug trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault.

“¢ Strong leadership in the White House on tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.

In his interview with Reznet News, Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band in California and a member of the Democratic Platform Committee, emphasized that tribal sovereignty will be the foundation of the native platform, since it plays an important role in all issues affecting Indian country.

Tribal sovereignty has seen a number of challenges recently in the form of state and federal gaming restrictions, child welfare and law enforcement. There is an overall lack of understanding of tribal sovereignty by state and federal governments that has led to a mass of confusing and conflicting court decisions that have rendered law enforcement especially difficult on native lands. As a result, high rates of violence against women, drug abuse and other crimes go virtually unpunished in often-vast rural reservation areas already understaffed by tribal and other police.

“People in the Green Zone in Baghdad may indeed be safer than citizens in Indian Country,” David Gipp said in his convention speech. (Here is a report on David Gipp’s speech.)

Gipp added, “The places many of our (native) nations now occupy have long been pockets of poverty in America, where the words “˜Liberty and justice for all,’ have become empty words on a piece of paper. Our health care is a disaster. Our public schools need repair.”

Indeed, the ironies of the recent Senate vote in favor of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act are many. Sponsored by Sen. John McCain and supported by Sen. Barack Obama, the act “implements the federal responsibility for the care and education of Indian people by improving the services and facilities of federal Indian health programs.”

But just last month, members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee blasted the Indian Health Service, the agency responsible for implementing the government’s trust responsibility, for mismanagement. The GAO had just released results of an audit showing more than 5, 000 items, such as “jaws of life” and construction equipment and computers, valued at $15.8 million were lost by the Indian Health Service. Now the IHS has cut back emergency health service hours in many rural locations because of lack of funding.

The Indian Health Services needs an additional $1 billion to meet current needs, reports Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota. Add President Bush’s budget cuts of more than $22 million for Indian health care in a population with 1.5 times greater infant mortality rate than non-Hispanic whites and you have a real crisis.

“We have an awakening movement in Indian Country,” Democratic Chairman Howard Dean told a convention meeting of First Americans Caucus according to Reznet. More accurately, he might have said that the Democrats finally woke up to the fact that Indians play a key role in a number of battleground states, such as Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington and Wisconsin.

As for us, Indians have long been wide-awake to our issues, pounding on the doors of government seeking justice for our people. Let’s hope they listen this time.

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