by Koren L. Capozza
word is spreading quickly through Indian country -- this is the year to come out for the primary vote.
In Internet chat rooms, through e-mail mass mailings, and in informal conversations Native Americans are rallying their numbers for what is being hailed as a pivotal moment. And the message reverberating among the nation's 2.4 million Native Americans is that Senator John McCain is the candidate to bolster.
"We are looking at an unprecedented turn-out from the native community for the primaries," says JoAnn Chase, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).
Former Navajo President Peterson Zah drew national attention when he publicly switched from Democrat to Republican last August so that he could vote for McCain and against Gov. George W. Bush.
American Indians, who have historically voted Democratic, are rethinking their loyalties this year. According to Zah, the drive to get Indians to the polls is fueled by a growing feeling that the other candidates' political agendas bode ill for Native American interests.
In particular, American Indians do not want to see Bush win the primary -- he enraged Native American groups in October when a Syracuse, New York newspaper quoted him saying state law should "reign supreme when it comes to Indians."
"This is the person seeking the highest office in the country and yet he has revealed through statements that he does not understand the relationship between tribal governments and the federal government," says Chase.
Some American Indians are ready to support McCain all the way to the presidency. Tribal leaders took note when McCain was the only candidate to attend the NCAI's national convention in Palm Springs last October.
He also earned points with tribes when he made deliberate stops throughout Indian country during his campaign tour, including a detour to the Navajo tribal council where he ensured leaders that American Indian issues would be prominently featured on his presidential agenda.
Moreover, Native Americans consider McCain to be knowledgeable about Indian affairs -- he served as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and gained the approval of Arizona tribes during his tenure as senator.
Even Democrats agree that McCain has an impeccable record when it comes to Native American causes. Bob Neuman, former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, told the Boston Globe that, "John McCain has been absolutely spectacular on Indian issues."
Recent polls indicate that over three quarters of Native people identify themselves as Democrats, according to the NCAI. "McCain throws an interesting twist in our political history," says Chase. "He's more conservative but extraordinarily progressive in his agenda for Indian country."
Chase says a growing frustration with Democrat Party indifference to Native American allegiances is causing many Indian voters to defect. "We don't want to be taken for granted. We expect the candidates to engage with the community."
But some Native American activists warn against switching camps too hastily. Indigenous environmentalists, for example, worry that both Republican candidates, once elected, would sell off the nation's natural resources -- a policy which will ultimately affect American Indians whose cultures and religions are closely tied to their natural environment.
McCain's sponsorship of the controversial 1996 Navajo-Hopi Relocation Act (Public Law 104-301), for example, will result in the forced removal of some 321 Navajo homes. Critics say McCain and the bill's supporters are in cahoots with the Peabody Coal Company, a mining giant with plans to exploit the mineral wealth in Navajo and Hopi territories.
Other American Indian activists see both parties as essentially the same. "There is no real difference between the Democrats and the Republicans," says Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a member of the American Indian Movement's Los Angeles chapter.
In a pinch, Westerman conceded that he would vote for Sen. Bill Bradley. "When he was Senator, Bradley made a bold move on behalf of the Lakota," he explained, referring to a bill that would have returned all the Black Hills to the tribe. Bradley is also remembered for the basketball clinics he offered on the Pine Ridge reservation in the 1970s.
Though American Indians make up only 1 percent of the American population, their vote could prove crucial for McCain.
"We have only one candidate that's knowledgeable about Native American issues," says Zah. "And that is Senator John McCain."
February 6, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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