July 27, 2007

Richardson knows Indian country

Big Three' can learn much from RichardsonIf the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates were as one-dimensional as the popular media portray, American Indians might be hard-pressed to decide which candidate best reflects the values of Indian country. Is it Hillary Clinton, an experienced woman leader? Or maybe it is Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, whose brown skin underscores each audacious speech on paradigm change. John Edwards sheds light on poverty and inequality. The front-runners are evident; their actions in improving the federal-tribal relationship are not. At least their campaign materials boast a basic knowledge of the significance of tribal sovereignty, an improvement from 2004 when George W. Bush famously stumbled through a simple question regarding its meaning.

Whether these candidates believe tribal sovereignty is good for Americans is another matter altogether. As they begin to develop Indian policy proposals, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's strong record on government-to-government relations with tribal nations stands as a beacon. Shortly after declaring his candidacy, Richardson told Indian Country Today that if elected president, he would install a cabinet-level secretary of Indian Affairs. Given his record, this is less lip service than intention. In 2005 he appointed Jemez Pueblo native Benny Shendo Jr. as New Mexico's first secretary of Indian Affairs. It is the only state in the country that has a cabinet secretary and a department of Indian Affairs. Spoken commitment followed by action is the key to winning the increasingly critical Native vote.

It is important to note that while the leading candidates are reaching out to Indian country as campaign strategy, they will not appear at what may be the only forum focused solely on Indian issues. Prez on the Rez, an event sponsored by the Indigenous Democratic Network (INDN's List), is slated for Aug. 23 at the Morongo reservation in southern California. The forum places Democratic candidates squarely before Indian people to address their concerns. It is the first such forum to be held in Indian country, and leaders of all federally recognized tribes have been invited. The chance afforded to nearly every other group in America has finally materialized for Indian people. Not surprisingly, Richardson was the first to accept the invitation. Unfortunately, the "Big Three" won't attend due to scheduling conflicts. It is too bad. Each could benefit from the example set by Richardson, and by experiencing firsthand the strength of Indian leadership and the challenges they face in their communities.

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