By Kevin Bogardus
Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Barack Obama’s support for the Cherokee Nation in its controversial battle with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is helping him win support from Native American leaders.
That support has translated into votes in Democratic primaries, and could also help the Illinoisan in a general-election fight with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Obama has weighed in against legislation supported by other CBC members that would cut off federal funds to the Cherokee Nation. The CBC is upset with the Cherokee for excluding Freedmen — descendants of slaves once owned by tribal members — from tribal membership.
Obama has said that he disagrees with the decision, but opposes cutting off funds to the Cherokee, saying tribes have a right to be self-governing.
To most black lawmakers, the move by the Cherokee Nation smacked of racism and discrimination. But many Native Americans see tribal membership as an issue of sovereignty and resent any federal intrusion.
Chairman Joe Brings Plenty of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in South Dakota said if Obama had sided with the CBC on the issue, it would have weighed on Native American voters’ minds.
“It would have been costly,” Brings Plenty said. “If Congress is allowed to step and just rearrange the constitution, what is going to happen to our constitution? The seriousness of the issue is that comes down directly to interfering with the nations.”
Obama easily won the two South Dakota counties where Brings Plenty’s reservation is located on Tuesday, although it wasn’t enough for him to win the entire state. He also benefited from strong wins in Indian counties in Montana, where he did defeat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
According to Obama’s advisers and supporters, a number of states might go Democratic in this year’s general election because of Native American votes. They cite Montana, a state where more than 6 percent of the population is Native American. It has voted Republican in the last several presidential campaigns, but Obama trails McCain by an average of only seven points, according to polls monitored by RealClearPolitics.
Another example cited by Obama’s supporters is North Carolina. While its population is only a little more than 1 percent American Indian, it is seen as a swing state where Obama might be able to edge out a narrow victory.
If Obama had sided with the CBC, Brings Plenty, who has no position on the substance of the Freedmen dispute, said he would not have retracted his endorsement but would have requested a meeting with the senator to offer his perspective on the issue.
Brings Plenty isn’t alone in praising Obama’s position on the Cherokee issue. Indian Country Today, a Native American news service, praised him for meeting “Indian issues head-on, even where they could put him at odds with other voters.”
“It was smart of Obama to put out a position. I’m glad he’s on the record. This is something tribes definitely want to hear,” said Lillian Sparks, a member of the Rosebud Sioux and executive director of the National Indian Education Association.
The CBC reaction has been less positive.
In an op-ed in The Hill, Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.), who endorsed Clinton for president, said the Democratic front-runner’s statement on the Freedmen shows he is without “a clear understanding of the issue.”
“What Sen. Obama fails to understand is that the Freedmen issue is about treaty rights, not tribal sovereignty,” wrote Watson.
Obama has taken other positions to win over Native American voters. He backs more education and healthcare funding for tribes, and has promised as president to hold an annual meeting with tribal leaders and to hire a senior White House aide to handle Native American issues.
“At the heart of his campaign is the need to be inclusive, particularly for communities that have felt they have been left out. For Indian Country, that resonates,” said Keith Harper, a Cherokee member and partner at Kilpatrick Stockton who heads up the Obama campaign’s 50-member Native American policy advisory committee.
Obama has met with tribal leaders in five states so far, including Tuesday’s Democratic primary states, according to his campaign. He also held a conference call with tribal leaders from across the nation in July 2007.
Brings Plenty soon started hearing from Obama campaign aides in October 2007 about an endorsement, although his nearly 16,000-member tribe is based in South Dakota and was not voting until June.
“I was surprised because he had knowledge of native issues even then,” said Brings Plenty about Obama when listening in to the conference call. “When I found out [former Sen. Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.] was one of his advisers, I knew that’s why he knows.”
Brings Plenty endorsed Obama personally in November 2007 and later had a tribal resolution passed officially supporting the senator in February this year.
Kalyn Free, a member of the Democratic National Committee and Oklahoma superdelegate, was disappointed when Obama did not attend an August 2007 Native American forum also skipped by several other candidates. But she’s since endorsed Obama, whom she said plans to attend a national tribal leader forum she’s organizing this summer.
Free aims to hold the forum in New Mexico, “the most purple of battleground states,” Free said. “Indians are and can be the pivotal and the deciding factor on who wins the White House.”