In a sign of growing tribal political clout, 70 Indian officials attended a first-ever Native-specific campaign fund-raiser with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. on January 27.
“I believe that one day we’re going to be able to look back on these years and say this was a turning point in nation-to-nation relations,” Obama said in a speech at the event. “That this was [a] turning point when the nations all across the country recognized that they were full partners, treated with dignity and respect and consultation; that this wasn’t just a side note on a White House agenda, but this was part and parcel of our broader agenda to make sure that everybody has opportunity.”
Seconding the president’s words, attendee Ray Halbritter, Representative of the Oneida Nation, said that Obama has made an effort to bring together Indian country, and to actually communicate with it—more so than any president in his experience. (Halbritter is the chief executive officer of Oneida Nation Enterprises, the parent company of Indian Country Today Media Network.)
“The president was most gracious and kind in his remarks,” Halbritter said. “His efforts are to be inclusive of Indian nations and not to treat them—in spite of the fact that they have certain unique sovereignty aspects—as a different, separate group; [he wants] to work with Indian nations for the betterment of America. That is significant.”
The eat-and-greet at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, near the Tidal Basin, was cohosted by the Obama campaign and the Native American Leadership Committee. (Since that’s not an official organization, its membership list is not readily available.) ICTMN has confirmed that among the attendees were the Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly; Tunica-Biloxi Chairman Earl Barbry; and Seneca Nation President Robert Odawi Porter. Also in attendance were Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz; Kimberly Teehee, senior policy advisor for Native American Affairs; and Charles Galbraith, associate director of the Office of Public Engagement. (Not all of the Natives who attended were elected tribal leaders; some were tribal lobbyists.)
In a telling sign about the current state of American campaign finance, tickets for this event started at $15,000. For $35,800, donors got dinner and a reception with Obama, where they got their picture taken with him. Under campaign finance law, $35,800 was the maximum allowable donation. All proceeds were said to go to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint committee authorized by Obama for America and the DNC.
If each tribal donor contributed the maximum amount, the president made $2.5 million from an event he attended for less than 30 minutes (from approximately 4:30 p.m. until just before five p.m., according to White House pool reports). Tribal attendees said they wished the president had stayed longer, although they understand that he was pressed for time.
More tribal money went Obama’s way in October, when Vice President Joe Biden hosted a similar event with Natives, according to a campaign official.
It’s believed that no similar fund-raising event with tribal donors was held during Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, and the White House won’t say if more are on the horizon.
At the reception, Obama gave his speech to the tribal officials who sat at seven round tables, according to pool reports. “My commitment is deeper than our unique nation-to-nation relationship,” the president said, according to a transcript released by the White House. “It’s a commitment to making sure that we get that relationship right. Native Americans have to be full partners in our economy. Your children and your grandchildren have to have an equal shot at the American dream.”
Obama noted that his administration has hosted a White House tribal nations summit for three years in a row, that he has appointed Natives to senior positions and that he has supported federal Indian policy enhancements, including reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in 2010.
The president pledged to do more: “As long as Native Americans face unemployment rates that are far higher than the national average, we’ve got more work to do. And I wake up every day focused on how do we restore America’s promise for all our people, including our first Americans.”
Promising to help build “a strong middle class in Indian country,” Obama added, “We want new businesses and new opportunities to take root on the reservation. We want to stop repeating the mistakes of the past and begin building a better future—one that honors old traditions and also welcomes every single Native American into the American dream.”
Finally, he made a fresh promise to the attendees: “And if you stick with me, I promise you guys I’m going to be sticking with you.”
The high price tag of the fund-raiser belies the fact that not all tribes are wealthy. A small number of gaming-rich tribes are among the biggest campaign donors in the nation, to both Democrats and Republicans. An analysis of state and federal campaign donations by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. found that in the campaign cycles of 2007 and 2008, four of the top 10 largest donors in the U.S. were tribes and tribal interests in California.
The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and a group called Tribes for Fair Play spent $129.8 million on state and national political campaigns; together they donated more than double that of the top national donor, the National Education Association, which spent $56.3 million. All of them are big gaming tribes (except for Tribes for Fair Play), and all of them want to protect their gaming interests.
California tribes had three more donors in the top 50 and another three in the top 1,000. Non-California tribes in the top 1,000 were the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians; the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine; and the Seminole Nation of Florida.
Leslie Logan, a spokeswoman for the Seneca Nation, touched on the campaign finance issue, saying her tribe made its political contribution to the Obama campaign because it feels the administration has pushed several issues important to the Seneca. “The Seneca Nation hopes to see even more of a commitment to Indian country issues, in the way of tribal consultation and ways in which the administration can better stand in support of treaty rights, economic development, and diversification and trade and commerce,” Logan said.
Commenting on the access issues that the American campaign finance system creates, Halbritter said, “It’s not what some people would like—that only people who can afford it have access. It’s a notion we all dislike; however, how to change [the system] is a good question.”
Halbritter noted, too, that tribes are often unfairly made to seem like the bad guys for operating by the rules of a game they didn’t create. “We’re fortunate to have gotten out of the poverty we were in,” he said of his own tribe’s success story. “We tried poverty for 200 years, and then we tried something different for ourselves. We’re in this game, playing by the rules that were given to us.”