The rarely-publicized meetings are one piece of what Indian Country leaders describe as an unprecedented effort this year by the presidential field to pay heed to this small and historically overlooked voting bloc. In the last two weeks alone, Obama, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned on Indian reservations across South Dakota and Montana as Sen. John McCain met with tribal leaders in New Mexico.
Comprising less than 2 percent of the U.S. population and concentrated mostly outside key primary states in past election years, Native Americans are seeing an uptick in prominence because of political and geographic realities.
The prolonged primary season has pushed the contest into states with larger Native communities—states that typically voted too late to attract much attention from presidential candidates. With the emergence of the Mountain West as the newest general election battleground, the Native vote is more highly sought-after than ever since it has proven to be mobilized and instrumental in recent statewide races.
“This has never, ever happened before,” said Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, which is neutral in the race. “In 2004, we thought it was a landmark when we got a majority of the candidates to make a statement to Indian Country and come to our conference.”
Native Americans traditionally and overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but leaders said they expect some in their community to at least consider McCain because of his history working on their issues as a past chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Clinton, too, has a track record as first lady and as a New York senator, which both she and her husband emphasized on separate tours through reservations in the runup to Tuesday’s last-in-the nation primaries in South Dakota and Montana.
“I will be your champion,” Clinton told a crowd on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Kyle, S.D. “I will fight for you. I will stand up for you, and I will work my heart out for you.”
Yet it’s the level of engagement from Obama – a senator from a state with no federally recognized tribes, a city guy with a limited legislative record on Native issues – that has surprised some in the community.
“Obama we weren’t so sure about,” Johnson said.
But from the start, Obama built an inner circle of advisers that included one of the community’s most revered advocates, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. The Illinois senator hired former Daschle operatives with connections to Indian Country and an understanding of its power to swing elections.
Native Americans have built clout in recent years, playing a key role in an Arizona congressional race and assisting in the 2002 victory of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) by 524 votes. Controversial late returns from Shannon County, which includes the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation, put Johnson ahead of Republican challenger John Thune. In 2004, Shannon County delivered 85 percent of the vote to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, making it his top county in the nation. The Native American vote was also considered key in Montana’s 2006 Senate race when Democrat Jon Tester defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns.
“I would like to believe these efforts reaching into Indian Country are truly altruistic – and for the large part, they are – but these candidates know that in order to win, Indian Country can be a deciding factor,” said Kalyn Free, an Oklahoma superdelegate and founder of the Indigenous Democratic Network&rsqu;s List, a political organization that mobilizes the Indian vote and recruits, trains and funds Indian candidates.
They comprise about 1 percent of the population in Nevada and Colorado, 4.5 percent in Arizona, 4.8 percent in North Dakota, 6.4 percent in Montana, 7.7 percent in Oklahoma, 8.5 percent in South Dakota and almost 10 percent in New Mexico, according to census figures.
Free came out earlier this month for Obama – one of four Native American superdelegates who have backed the Illinois senator – but she took awhile to get there.
She was highly critical of Clinton, Obama and former Sen. John Edwards last summer for skipping the first forum dedicated to Native American issues. Only three candidates, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean attended the event at the Morongo Band of Mission Indians’ reservation in Southern California.
Clinton declined first, Free said, and Obama and Edwards followed suit.
“If they won't come talk to us now, they certainly won't be responsive to us if they get in the White House,” Free, a Choctaw from Oklahoma, said in August.
But it was around this time that Obama began reaching out on his own terms.
He hosted a conference call with 100 tribal leaders, where he pledged adequate funding in his administration for healthcare, education and other programs. “Honoring sovereignty means maintaining an open door relationship. I want all of your tribes to have a voice in developing my policies,” Obama said, according to the Seminole Tribune.
He released a platform that went a step further than Clinton by promising to appoint an American Indian policy advisor to his senior White House staff.
Starting last summer with the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina, he met privately with tribal leaders almost a dozen more times during trips through Idaho, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Montana and South Dakota, campaign aides said.
Before a rally in Sioux Falls, S.D., last week, Obama sat down with 50 Lakota Sioux leaders from across the state. He also met with a group of tribal leaders a few days earlier in Montana.
It was an opportunity for “the tribes to meet with him in person, talk one on one, let them have a feel for who he was but also a chance for them to express themselves,” said Frank King, the publisher of the Native Voice and a tribal consultant who helped arrange the Sioux Falls meeting. “This meeting was about introducing them to someone who is willing to sit down in private and address their concerns. It was an education process for him.”
Interactions such as these can reap big rewards for politicians because tribal leaders have the potential to move thousands of votes, King said.
“Native people are like families,” he said. “That is, they vote in blocs.”
Obama also detoured to the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana, where he invoked his own background as the biracial son of a single mother who grew up in modest circumstances to explain that he knows what it feels like to be an outsider.
“I know what it is like to struggle and that’s how I think many of you understand what’s happened here on the reservation, that a lot of times you have been forgotten just like African Americans have been forgotten or other groups in this country have been forgotten,” Obama said. “Because I have that experience, I want you to know that I will never forget you.”
By this point, Free had migrated to Obama’s side. She said she decided an Obama administration "will be more inclusive and respectful and will look to Indian Country for solutions."
But she said she also extracted a promise from him to participate in a public forum with tribal leaders at some point during the general election.
“That is going to be an historic event,” Free said.