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The Minutest Minority: Don't Count Out Native Republicans

Reznet News , Kevin Abourezk Posted: Sep 10, 2008

LINCOLN, NEB. Shawn White Wolf, owner of White Wolf Media Group, offers a simple explanation for why most Native Americans call themselves Democrats: They have forgotten.

They have forgotten the destructive Indian policies of termination and relocation that Democratic presidents like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson failed to repair. They have forgotten the tribes that were terminated, destined to lose their tribal lands and face a future devoid of culture.
They have forgotten the self-determination policies implemented by Republican President Richard Nixon that empowered tribes to care for themselves.

The 35-year-old Northern Cheyenne tribal member wants them to remember. He wants them to recall their political history so they can begin changing their future.

This fall, a minority that typically aligns itself with the Democratic Party is scratching its head over two candidates with very different resumes and rhetoric.

Many Native leaders are willing to believe Barack Obama whose political resume includes little experience on Native issues will deliver on his promises to offer Native people greater political participation than nearly any other president in history. Still, other Native leaders are taking a hard look at John McCain, who led the Republican Task Force on Indian Policy shortly after being elected to Congress in 1982 and who later served twice as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
That choice is forcing many Native people to reevaluate their political beliefs and ask the question: What does the Republican Party have to offer me? Plenty, say Native Republicans.

"We've got people that really have a history of working with tribes," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who is Chickasaw and the only Native member of Congress.

Cole said he sees a real opportunity for the GOP to grab Native votes in battleground states this year with Arizona Sen. McCain and now Alaska Gov. Sara Palin on his party's ticket. Palin, he said, also has worked to improve the lives of Native people in her state.

And that's what he told a few dozen Native Republicans and advocates gathered for a Native policy forum at the Republican National Convention last week.

But while he supports the Republican Party and McCain, Cole said Native issues shouldn't be politicized.
"I've always believed tribes ought to be neither Republican nor Democrat," he said. "To me, tribal issues are essentially non-partisan." Yet, he understands the need for tribes to decide for themselves which party offers them the best policies.

Cole said several tribes with successful casinos, including the Morongo and Pechanga tribes from California and the Prairie Island tribe from Minnesota, attended the convention. That's in part because the Republican Party supports tribal gaming managers rather than tribal casino labor unions, which Democrats tend to support.

"That's probably an area where Republicans have an advantage," Cole said.

Cole also says besides a wealth of experience on tribal issues including having co-sponsored the Indian Health Care Improvement Act McCain truly understands Native sovereignty and will work to protect it.

While Cole supports the GOP's economic policies, he also supports his party's social values.
Calvin Twoteeth, 44, a Salish and Chippewa Cree from Montana, describes himself as a lifelong Republican. He said the GOP's values just align better with his traditional Native values, which include respect for all life, a belief that he said has led him to agree with most Republicans that abortion is wrong.

Along with White Wolf, Twoteeth hosts "Native View," a political talk show on a public access television channel in Montana and Alaska in which he and White Wolf interview Native and non-Native leaders about tribal issues. While they attempt to tell both sides of the issues they discuss, both admit they also use the show to spread their own conservative message.

For Twoteeth, that message is essentially this: "If you want to make something of yourself, you've got to get some ambition and start moving forward."


Democratic politicians talk about personal responsibility but when a party member gets in trouble, they circle the wagons, he said. Republicans, on the other hand, are more likely to criticize their own when they make political or personal mistakes, he said.

For similar reasons, Twoteeth said he doesn't support President Bush who he said has fumbled the war in Iraq and isn't yet sure about McCain. But he does support McCain's vice presidential pick.
He said he likes that Palin doesn't try to hide her challenges, including a pregnant teenage daughter and a baby with Down syndrome. Instead, she is showing the public that she and her family have issues they are working through.

Unlike Twoteeth, White Wolf is a relative newcomer to the Republican Party, having joined just last year after deciding to run for the Montana Legislature. While he didn't win his race, White Wolf said his disillusionment with a party [the Democratic party] that often promises Native people change but rarely delivers hasn't dissipated.

He said Republican leaders tend to be more open to listening to tribal leaders than Democrats.
White Wolf serves on a Montana Republican Party task force that is seeking ways to address Native domestic and child abuse. He said it's an issue he's tried over the years to get Democratic leaders to address, with little success.

"Our women can't wait and our children can't wait anymore," he said.

White Wolf is also skeptical of McCains commitment. While he's had 26 years to help Native people, McCain accomplished little as a congressional and Senate leader on Indian affairs, he said.
Johnny Red Eagle, assistant principal chief of the Osage Nation, agrees tribes shouldn't unconditionally accept either party's promises.

"I think we should look at what each party if going to do for us," he said.
Red Eagle said the Osage Nation, like most tribes, sways Democratic.

While his political views aren't representative of those of most of his tribe, Red Eagle believes the Osages would prosper more under McCain, the only candidate to even mention Native people in his presidential nomination acceptance speech.

"He's not making as many promises as Obama is, but I do think that he'll work with the Indians," he said. "He'll be a friend to us if he's elected."

But even if he didn't work with Indians as much as Obama, Red Eagle said he likely would support a Republican administration. That's because he agrees with his party's views on social issues like abortion and the need for an impartial judiciary that doesn't legislate from the bench.

"There are certain values I live by that I feel need to be in the forefront of this race," Red Eagle said

Related Articles:

Navajo Delegates Heartened by Large Native Presence at DNC

The Indian Vote: When Candidates Come Calling



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