Obama, Clinton Woo American Indian Voters

Matthew Brown and Mary Clare Jalonick, AP, June 2, 2008

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The newly named Awe Kooda Bilaxpak Kuuxshish—better known as Barack Obama—faced east, the symbolic source of new life. His adopted Crow father, Hartford Black Eagle, prayed over him.

Afterward, they walked arm-in-arm with Black Eagle’s wife, Mary, to a podium, where Obama promised to live up to the meaning of his new name: “One Who Helps People Throughout the Land.”

“I want you to know that I will never forget you,” Obama told the crowd, who had not seen a visitor of such political importance since Lady Bird Johnson came to the Montana reservation in the 1960s. “You will be on my mind every day that I am in the White House.”

In a tight Democratic race, American Indians living in poor conditions on isolated prairie reservations could have a pivotal voice in the selection of a presidential candidate. As a result, they’re hearing a lot of promises from politicians: better health care, improved housing and stepped-up law enforcement in Indian country.

Their votes could be decisive in the last two Democratic primaries, the June 3 votes in Montana and South Dakota, that Obama would very much like to win to bring him closer to the Democratic nomination. He and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’d like victories just as much, are wooing the oft-ignored Indian vote—which is small, but big enough to matter this year.

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Reservations, especially the poor, remote tribal areas in the High Plains, have rarely been campaign stops in recent years.

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Almost 9 percent of South Dakota’s roughly 800,000 residents are American Indian—the third highest population in the country. Around 6 percent of Montana’s slightly larger population are American Indian. Those voters are traditionally Democratic, though Republicans have worked hard to woo them in recent elections.

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The Republicans’ likely nominee, John McCain, a former Senate Indian Affairs Committee chairman, is bidding for their votes too. He met with tribal leaders last week, promising, like Clinton and Obama, to create a new White House position to oversee Indian affairs.

“We don’t rely on promises so much as we do their ability to understand our issues,” said Robert Moore, an elected official in South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Tribe and volunteer organizer for Obama.

No matter who wins, say leaders, American Indians expect more attention from the next administration.

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