Native Americans wield new political clout

Just as they occupy a unique spot in US history, Indians are carving a path to greater political influence unlike that of any other minority group.

Yet as Indians' level of political activism surges in the late 1990s, their greater involvement in nontribal affairs increasingly worries some native Americans as the seed that could ultimately undermine their cherished sovereignty.

The rise of Indian activism and influence is strongly evident in California, where three native American tribes were among the top 10 contributors to state campaigns in the 1997-98 election, according to data from the California Common Cause.

In addition, Indians here successfully waged the most expensive ballot-initiative campaign in US history last November, winning voter approval for expanded gambling operations on tribal lands. While the courts recently declared the ballot initiative unconstitutional, Gov. Gray Davis quickly hammered out a compromise, one further sign of the Indians' growing clout in the state capital.

Indian political involvement is growing elsewhere, too. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribe of Connecticut, for instance, in 1994 gave $500,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $100,000 to the Democratic Parties of California and New York.

In New Mexico, Indian dollars in gubernatorial campaigns grew sharply from the late 1980s to the 1994 and 1998 election cycles. Indian donations aided the successful campaign of Republican Gov. Gary Johnson last November. While Indians are mostly Democrats, Governor Johnson's support for Indian casinos earned him more financial backing, say analysts.

And nationally, Minnesota tribes gave $350,000 to the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection effort, a move that stirred allegations it was a reward for the rejection of a bid by Indians in Wisconsin to build a competing casino. But no indictments were sought.

Indians' path to power is distinct because it starts with two premises not shared by other minority groups. First, say experts, Indians have historically fought for sovereignty and independence, as opposed to other minorities who seek inclusion within the US system. This sets up a source of conflict that dogs virtually every step Indians take in the political arena. It causes tension within tribes, competition between tribes, and often contentious relationships with the government entities they seek to influence.

Second, because Indians make up less than 1 percent of the population nationally, they place little emphasis on voting as a lever of real influence. This is in sharp contrast to the importance of voting in the quest for greater political clout by African-Americans, Latinos, and even Asian Americans.

But what Indians lack in ballot-box strength, they're making up for with dollars.

Though their numbers and land base in California are relatively small, Indian tribes outspent every other group with donations of $3.6 million in the 1997-98 election. Indians, notes Common Cause director Jim Knox, "have now surpassed the political giving of perennial special-interest powerhouses including California's teachers, trial lawyers, and doctors."

While those who worry about the influence of money in politics may bemoan the inclusion of Indians among the big spenders, others see a separate danger.

As David Wilkins, a member of the Lundee Nation, puts it, "If tribal governments and their multilayered citizens are so actively engaged in non-Indian politics, can tribes still legitimately assert that they are in fact extraconstitutional sovereigns?" Mr. Wilkins says he sees signs of growing tensions between many Indian tribes and state governments, as well as more questioning within the tribes themselves about how claims to sovereignty square with growing involvement in "external" politics.

Casinos are clearly the immediate object of many native American attempts to exert influence at the state level. That's because under a 1988 federal law, the tribes and the states are required to achieve "compacts" for casino-style gaming. And because tribes have had little success suing the states when agreements cannot be reached, there has been added incentive to get involved politically, says Bill Haltom, a New Mexico lawyer who represents Indians.

Casinos are also the source of much of the wealth for tribes prosperous enough to become big-money players in state politics. Some applaud the trend. "We're just playing the game like everyone else is," says Laura Harris of Americans for Indian Opportunity in Bernalillo, N.M. Indian involvement in governmental affairs has gone on for generations at the federal level, she notes.

"We've always had a good sense of how to deal with Congress.... Though ... we've just jumped into the game at the state level. It's certainly on the rise in New Mexico."

While gambling has set the stage for the surge of political activity, some expect it to persist even in states where the issue is settled. "Until the gaming issue came along, the contact between Indians and government was occasional and fragmented," says Phil Isenberg, a consultant to the Alliance of California Tribes.

But even though the casino issue appears largely settled in California, Isenberg says his hunch is that Indian political involvement will not slack off. That's because Indians have had a taste of political influence and also have issues beyond gaming, ranging from water to education, he says.

While using the checkbook rather than the ballot box may not be everyone's model of democracy, for many Indians it is the only realistic way to gain influence. And unlike other minority groups, Indian numbers are so small that, even with campaign donations, they still have to build constituencies beyond Indians to have real leverage.

Barbara Morris of the University of Redlands, east of Los Angeles, says Indian advocacy more resembles that of environmental groups, for instance, than it does other minority groups'. That's because to gain clout, even with money, Indians must convince policymakers their cause has broad support. The victory in last November's casino initiative in California shows just that kind of broad popular backing, she notes.

Given the high level of support for Indians, evidenced in polls, Ms. Morris suspects their clout will continue to rise, so long as they embrace issues not seen as harmful to a broader constituency.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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