Bunky Echo-Hawk Camp Crier

“Camp Crier”
by Bunky Echo-Hawke
exhibited in “American Icons Through Indigenous Eyes” (2007)

via Washington Post

Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert called this the “Indian Summer of Love” in his Colbert Report interview with Winona LaDuke, White Earth Ojibwe activist and former vice presidential candidate for the Green Party. Colbert quotes Jacquelyn Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, “This is a phenomenal year for us, this has never, ever happened before.” (See Colbert clip at the bottom of this story.)

Johnson is referring to the unprecedented public emphasis both candidates have placed on Indian issues. Sen. John McCain has a surprisingly long and positive record with Indian country. An advocate for Indian rights, McCain has served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and has both introduced and supported legislation beneficial for Indian peoples. He has spoken favorably of the positive impact of sovereignty for Indian nations and has co-sponsored the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

This differs strongly from some of his party’s past leaders, notably President George W. Bush, who looked like someone had clubbed him in the head when he was asked about the meaning of tribal sovereignty. In 2004, during his press conference at the Unity conference in Washington D.C., a combined meeting of the four main organizations representing journalists of color, you could hear the low buzz of about one thousand suppressed laughs as President Bush struggled to define the term.

Sen. Barack Obama met with several Indian leaders during the primary campaign and was the first presidential candidate to visit the Crow Nation in Montana. During his visit, he promised to work to improve Indian education, ensuring that Indian children receive a “world-class education” and pointed out that he co-sponsored the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Sen. Obama promised to end “nearly a century of mismanagement of Indian trust.” (This was a reference to the claims by Indian landowners that the federal government failed to pay them billions of dollars in royalties for oil, gas, timber and grazing rights. A federal judge in that case says he will have a decision by August.)

During his visit, Obama also received a Crow name: “He who helps people across the land.” He has also publicly sided with the Cherokee nation in its controversial decision to take off tribal rolls a number of Freedmen, descendents of mixed race Indians and African slaves. The Freedmen have filed an injunction to prohibit their ouster. Obama has stated that he supports the Cherokee’s right to determine tribal affiliation.

Traditionally, the question of political party affiliation for most of Indian country has been a no-brainer. Overwhelmingly, we’re Democrats. This presidential race, however, presents some interesting twists. I recall seeing John McCain and his family in the early 1990’s quietly joining the annual Navajo Nation Fair parade each year when I covered it for the Arizona Republic. I heard many of the people along the parade route say, “John McCain is a friend to the Navajos.”

I was surprised. I’d never met any Indians who voted Republican. So many of our friends and family had velvet portraits of JFK in their homes that for years as a child I thought the guy was some long, lost relative. One of my earliest memories is going to the polls with my mother, who volunteered for the Democratic Party, to vote. Afterwards, to her chagrin, I announced loudly to all at the polling place, “We voted for Kennedy, didn’t we mom!?”

I’m thinking, however, that the Indian summer of love may be awfully short-lived. Obama is already backing off his promise made during the primary to meet tribal leaders at a special town hall meeting to be coordinated by Kayln Free, founder of the Indigenous Democratic Network. The Obama campaign has announced that it can only give two weeks notice before committing to the meeting. Free has expressed concern that it may be next to impossible to secure an appropriate venue and coordinate tribal leaders’ schedules on such short notice.

On the Republican side, McCain’s recent focus on gaming issues has angered many leaders in Indian country. He was the lead author on legislation that created the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act but is now in favor in prohibiting tribes from using new trust land for gaming. He also wants to give the IGRA more and expanded regulatory powers, tightening federal scrutiny. Many tribal leaders see this as an affront to tribal sovereignty and self-determination. The well-known Indian news website Indianz.com reports that Indians in Washington, D.C., are now privately calling McCain “the Great White Father.”

Summer of love or not, we’re a people to watch.

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