American Indians, making their presence known as a force to be reckoned with in American politics—especially in an age of close swing-vote elections where every vote matters—are all over the Democratic National Convention, which is scheduled to conclude tonight with the acceptance of the party’s nomination by President Barack Obama.
In total, there are 161 Native Democratic delegates attending the convention, according to Holly Cook Macarro, a tribal lobbyist with Ietan Consulting who has sat in on Indian meet-and-greets with Jill Biden and top administration officials taking place throughout the three-day event in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her husband, Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, is one of those delegates, and he cast his vote in support of Obama early on September 6 after a rousing speech by former president, Bill Clinton.
“The attendance by American Indians at the DNC is unparalleled,” said A. Gay Kingman, executive director of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association. She noted that there are two American Indian delegates attending the convention from South Dakota, along with American Indian South Dakota State Representative, Kevin Killer, and she said there are at least two American Indians attending as delegates from North Dakota.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, said that Glenda Embry, his tribe’s public relations director, is a delegate, and that he is proud of the support for tribal sovereignty expressed in the recently released Democratic platform.
Several more Democratic Indian delegates hail from Washington state, California, Montana, Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and other states with large Native populations.
“I know there is much excitement and support for President Obama,” Kingman added. “He has worked with our tribes, brought our own American Indian qualified people into his administration, instituted many positive changes for our tribes, and started the ball rolling for more improvements. We want him to be able to continue the momentum for progress on our reservations.”
All this political action comes not only thanks to positive feelings for Obama, but also because Indians want to establish an official Native American Caucus with the DNC. For years, they have not had enough numbers in attendance to meet the organization’s requirements, and instead have had to meet via an informal council, as they did on September 5, at which U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, implored them to “speak with one voice,” according to attendees. In the DNC structure, a caucus of Indians would have more power, meaning more sway in getting attention and action on Indian issues and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) support. The lack of a caucus likely played a role this year in Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren’s purposeful ignoring of Indian delegates who called for her to meet with them at the convention about her alleged Cherokee ancestry and the nationwide controversy it has caused. If an official DNC caucus made such a request of Warren, she would have been less likely to able to ignore it.
The increased Indian attendance also comes despite the demise of the Indigenous Democratic Network, known as INDN’s List, in late-2010. The political action committee, led by Democratic activist Kalyn Free, attempted to get more Indians elected to state offices, and it supported several successful Native candidates since its founding in 2005, but it ran out of money in those efforts.
Free has turned her attention to advising Bill John Baker, recently elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and she has served as his lawyer. Not coincidentally, Baker was a delegate at the convention, and has been vocal in his support for Obama, telling The Oklahoman that Obama “is the best president for Indian country in the history of the United States.”
Other activists, like Lona Wilbur, a Swinomish citizen and DNC member and delegate, have also stepped up to fill in the gap. This year, she helped coordinate a strong Washington state delegation of Natives to attend the convention, noting that two tribal leaders were tapped to serve as Obama Delegation Committee members, Leonard Forsman, a Suquamish citizen and chairman, and David Bean, a Puyallup councilmember. “Washington is the only state to have an enrolled Native American as an elected DNC member of fifty states,” Wilbur said, referring to her own unique position.
Denise Juneau, a Mandan and Hidatsa tribal citizen and first Indian woman elected to a statewide office, also played an important role, having been selected to give a speech before the convention on September 5, focused on Indian education. Carol Juneau, her mother, served as a delegate from Montana, casting a vote in support of Obama’s nomination.
Indian delegates and attendees have received strong support in their efforts from some top officials of the DNC, including Brian Bond, director of constituency outreach with the organization, and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former DNC Chair Howard Dean; but still, a lot of work needs to be done to get the party to recognize that tribal outreach is crucial, according to dedicated Native activists. This year’s GOTV focus by the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party, for instance, has been centered overwhelmingly on states, with tribes as an afterthought—which is not the best way to get Natives to vote, since state processes have historically been bad at addressing Indian voters. DNC outreach to the media on Indian issues has also been lacking, as officials with the organization have been able to offer few concrete details of Native involvement and achievement.
“There’s still work to be done,” said Gyasi Ross, a Blackfeet citizen and lawyer with the Crowell Law Office who worked for Obama’s campaign in 2008. But he and other Democratic-minded Indians strongly believe this convention has been a step in the right direction.