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Navajo Delegates Heartened by Large Native Presence at DNC

NAM/Navajo Times, News Report, Cindy Yurth Posted: Aug 27, 2008

Editor's note: Cindy Yurth of Navajo Times is in Denver -- thanks to New America Media -- to cover the Democratic National Convention, Aug. 25-28, 2008. She and nine other NAM-sponsored ethnic-media journalists are blogging and reporting on the DNC for electorates of color across the country.

DENVER - Frank LaMere knew it was going to be a good convention when the Ute medicine man was blessing the Pepsi Center.

"The most majestic bald eagle I have ever seen flew over downtown Denver and circled the Pepsi Center," said the chairman of the First Americans Caucus at the Democratic National Convention as the caucus met for the first time Monday. "Our Ute relatives have some strong medicine."

Indeed, as the convention opened, the optimism within the caucus was almost palpable.

For one thing, it was the first convention where the caucus was a caucus.

"At the last convention, it was an advisory council," said LaMere, noting that to be an official caucus a group has to have at least nine members on the Democratic National Committee (there are four Native Americans).

However, some people within the group were able to convince the DNC to make the Native delegation an official caucus, he noted, placing Natives on equal footing with the other race-based caucuses: Hispanic, Black and Asian.

In addition, this year's convention includes a record number of Native delegates - about 140, or 2.3 percent of the 6,000 delegates.

Three are Navajo: President Joe Shirley Jr., former Arizona state senator Jack C. Jackson Jr., and attorney Christopher Clark Deschene, a candidate for Arizona state representative in District 2.

Shirley, although a pledged Hillary Clinton delegate, is clearly behind presumed presidential nominee Barack Obama these days.

"We can't do anything with this present administration," he said. "As a result, we're not doing very well in Native America. Whether you talk about (Public Law) '638, sovereignty, health, it's all going down. We need to change, and Senator Obama is talking change."

Shirley said he's particularly excited about Obama's suggestion of a cabinet-level Native American liaison and his plan to end the war in Iraq, which is siphoning off funding from the BIA and many other domestic agencies.

Although it's his first Democratic convention and he has nothing to compare it to, Shirley was pleased to hear of the record participation of Natives.

"Strengthened, heartened, encouraged," he said in describing his feelings at seeing more than 80 Native leaders at the caucus meeting, including several tribal chairmen and women.

It was also Deschene's first convention, and he was catching the energy.

"I'm very excited to be here," he said. "It's great to hear our distinguished elders like Frank LaMere say this is the year we're really going to make a difference. I'm just enjoying being around them and hearing their vision, being a part of the larger Democratic community."

Deschene said he's hearing a lot about "classic Native issues" like social justice and the environment, but he hopes Native Democrats don't confine themselves to those.

"I think it's important for us to remember we have Native businessmen, we have Native veterans, we have Native seniors - we have Natives represented in every segment of the population, and we want to make sure we're representing all of them," he said. "We have a diverse community and it enriches and validates the platform."

While most of the caucus time Monday was taken up discussing strategies to get out the Native vote, LaMere said some members were working on a draft resolution protesting what they see as a lenient sentence for former tribal lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to bilking some casino tribes out of millions.

Abramoff is presently serving a five-year, 10-month sentence in a minimum-security federal prison.

"As we speak there are thousands of our Native young men and women who languish in our federal prisons doing four or five times the amount of Jack Abramoff, who disaffected so many people," LaMere said. "This is somebody who took $85 million of our money."

Superdelegate Kalyn Free, who founded Indnslist.org to support Native candidates around the country, said she's looking forward to a convention where a Native presidential candidate is nominated.

"We're all primed to see a Obama up there," she told the caucus, "but can you imagine how we would feel if that person were an American Indian?"

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